The search for truth in politics…

…life and art, with nods to Monty Python, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Kurt Vonnegut, and Hannah Arendt. Also, what can the Vietnam War teach us about Brexit? Are there general symptoms of a bad government policy which we should be on the lookout for? Plus, Cambridge Analytica videos.

Lies Mar UK Election Results

With apologies to Boris boosters, there remains some question in my mind as to whether Johnson really has a ‘mandate from the people’ to do anything he pleases (as many in the media are claiming). To the extent that the election was marred by lies, he may lack an ethical mandate; and even some Tory voters would question his entitlement to autocratic carte blanche.

Consider this in the Independent: “Almost every Tory ad dishonest, compared with none of Labour’s, research finds.” And note well this comment by ‘Dianelos’:

It has become quite evident that democracy has stopped being an effective means, as exemplified by how people in countries such as the US and the UK (not to mention Greece) have voted against their interest and have given power to completely inadequate and indeed grossly immoral leaders. The reasons for that phenomenon are complex and the discussion of how to improve the democratic process is both difficult and urgent. But some corrective steps can be taken quickly: One obvious and significant reason for democracy’s affliction is that lying has become a legitimate tool of politics because voters often recompense those politicians who lie. Things have deteriorated so much that some have come to admire as especially successful those politicians who become popular thanks to lies that people like to hear. One solution to this problem is to criminalize lying. Since it’s not always clear whether politicians lie because they wish to con people or because they are just misinformed themselves, I’d say the appropriate punishment rendered by a court of law would be to strip the offenders of their right to be candidates for political office.

And since it’s not just politicians but also media organizations which systematically misinform the people the punishment in that case should be a heavy fine. Media organizations are private companies looking to make a profit, and unfortunately to misinform people is often an effective way to make money. This distortion of capitalism can be corrected by legal means.

In both cases justice should be rendered very quickly – within a matter of days. So a new kind of court would be needed. But it is doable.

There are some good ideas here — and some difficulties. Politicians often include microscopic scraps of truth along with a passel of exaggerations and mischaracterisations. Those scraps of truth are meant (in theory) to shield them from being branded outright liars. They may spin the truth in a variety of ways, including emphasising irrelevant details over crucial ones. I’m reminded of the classic Monty Python cheese shop sketch, in which a customer enters the shop only to gradually discover that no matter what kind of cheese he asks for, the owner claims it’s out of stock. After awhile:

Customer: It’s not much of a cheese shop really, is it?
Owner: Finest in the district, sir!
Customer: And what leads you to that conclusion?
Owner: Well, it’s so clean!
Customer: It’s certainly uncontaminated by cheese.

One can picture a scenario where the UK economy has tanked post-Brexit, but Boris Johnson continues to claim that it’s humming along on all four cylinders due to a ‘fantastic’ free trade deal with Swaziland: “They’ll be sending us goat meat, and we’ll be sending them videos of Downton Abbey.”

That’s as may be (said the man in the crunchy frog sketch), but deals with Swaziland, Sierra Leone, Lichtenstein, Grand Fenwick, and other smallish countries are unlikely to offset losses from lapsed trade deals with major partners. Beautiful plumage, the Norwegian Blue. Yes, but it’s dead. (See also this regarding the ‘blue-lipped bojo.’)

If lying is criminalised, how much truth is needed to act as a fig leaf? Separating out the convoluted claims of politicians isn’t always easy. Said claims aren’t always reducible to the binaries of true and false, but rather invite us to ponder “How many Pinocchios does this claim deserve?” (Boris Johnson collects Pinocchios the way some people collect swizzle sticks.)

Truth is a concept which deeply engages ethicists, civil libertarians, historians, and spiritual seekers. “What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate of Jesus in that famed confrontation. Historians know that truth is determined by the victors. In times of excessive populism truth is determined by the mob, drowning out more reflective views from the margins, including spiritual insights which might serve as cautionary tales. (Under Boris Johnson, will 10 Downing Street become a place “where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal”?

It might be relatively easy to criminalise the telling of massive, Trump-sized porkies, but questions requiring nicety of judgment would still remain elusive. Judges are, after all, lawyers installed through a political process; and juries consist of lay people who may themselves fall victim to popular prejudices. Can a judge and jury determine the existence or non-existence of God, or ferret out the differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism? Waxing Pythonish again: “Tonight, instead of discussing the existence or non-existence of God, they have decided to fight for it… To be determined by two falls, two submissions, or a knockout. All right boys, let’s get to it. Your master of ceremonies for this evening – Mr Arthur Waring.”

There’s clearly a need for greater truth in our collective societies, but we do run up against the postmodern dilemma of having no ultimate authority, no final referee. People must be free to discuss different ideas, different theoretical constructs and life experiences without fear of prosecution. In these debased times, we may well ask whether any but a small minority even care for truth. See “The Truman Show and Finding Reliable Spiritual Sources.”

Does truth itself partake of a multidimensional quality or ‘fusion of horizons’ in which seeming opposites might be reconciled? Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics calls for skills like listening, dialogue, partnership and empathy — skills which are conspicuous by their absence in today’s political climate, where truth is determined by which colour rosette you’re wearing.

For more on Gadamer, see Art and Hermeneutics Part 1 and Part 2, where I try to provide a fun introduction to some challenging concepts, while learning myself. A footnote is that it’s easier to reconcile opposing truths in art than it is in politics. What was it F. Scott Fitzgerald said? “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” As I wrote previously:

Music is far more instructive than, say, a polarized political debate for understanding [Gadamer’s] fusion of horizons. In the typical political debate to which we are subjected, two politicians with fixed points of view slug it out, neither hearing the other or learning from the other, and neither being changed by the other’s point of view. But music by its very nature requires cooperative skills. Rather than treating the other as the enemy, a sensitive musician fuses with the other and counters in a manner which presents the other in the best light.

Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics has a distinctly modern feel to it because it implies the abandonment of the fixed point of view clutched fiercely (and leading to strife or warfare). In its place, we are offered (as a people) the opportunity to engage in listening, dialogue and empathy, and to experience a fusion of horizons which allows us to understand what we had perhaps previously regarded with consternation, suspicion or hostility.

Gadamer’s approach is well-suited to the global village. It is recognized as anti-dogmatic in nature and humble in its awareness that the other’s viewpoint may be equally valid. It carves out a helpful middle ground between absolutism and relativism, holding out hope that through dialogue we might gain essential insights that would allow us to live together, respecting diversity without obliterating difference.

Kurt Vonnegut was no great beacon of truth, but in his novel The Sirens of Titan he did reframe the search for some unified field theory in this fetching manner:

Almost any brief explanation of chrono-synclastic infundibula is certain to be offensive to specialists in the field. Be that as it may, the best brief explanation is probably that of Dr. Cyril Hall, which appears in the fourteenth edition of A Child’s Cyclopedia of Wonders and Things to Do. The article is here reproduced in full, with gracious permission from the publishers:

Chrono-Synclastic Infundibula — Just imagine that your Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on Earth, and he knows everything there is to find out, and he is exactly right about everything, and he can prove he is right about everything. Now imagine another little child on some nice world a million light years away, and that little child’s Daddy is the smartest man who ever lived on that nice world so far away. And he is just as smart and just as right as your Daddy is. Both Daddies are smart, and both Daddies are right.

Only if they ever met each other they would get into a terrible argument, because they wouldn’t agree on anything. Now, you can say that your Daddy is right and the other little child’s Daddy is wrong, but the Universe is an awfully big place. There is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.

The reason both Daddies can be right and still get into terrible fights is because there are so many different ways of being right. There are places in the Universe, though, where each Daddy could finally catch on to what the other Daddy was talking about. These places are where all the different kinds of truths fit together as nicely as the parts in your Daddy’s solar watch. We call these places chrono-synclastic infundibula.

It might be Gadamer for preschoolers, but how can we apply this wisdom in a practical way? Simply transport Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn to a chrono-synclastic infundibulum, and there they will agree!

Hannah Arendt’s “Lying in Politics”

I recently stumbled on this 2016 article by Maria Popova rich in quotes from Hannah Arendt’s 1971 essay “Lying in Politics.” The original essay includes detailed discussion of the Vietnam War and the (then newly released) Pentagon Papers, but Popova has extracted quotes which are more universal and relevant to recent political crises. Those ‘teaser’ quotes inspired me to read the original.

It’s easy to see why there’s been a resurgence of interest in Arendt. Those who are gobsmacked by the rise of Trump and the general decline of truth will even look so far afield as simulation theory, which posits that some advanced race in the future has created our world as a computer simulation; and in order to liven things up a bit or stress-test our system, they’ve installed Donald Trump in the White House. I consider simulation theory nonsense suitable for enriching lawns, but it is a barometer of how perplexing the present situation has become, and how desperate people are for explanations. Arendt is one of the few political theorists in the past half-century to deal specifically with the connection between lying in politics, populism, and totalitarianism. So like Jonathan Winters in that old Twilight Zone episode “A Game of Pool,” she’s now on call 24 hours a day. 😉

Decades before Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts,” Arendt had already written incisively about the problem of “defactualization” in politics and government:

The first explanation that comes to mind to answer the question “How could they?” is likely to point to the interconnectedness of deception and self-deception. In the contest between public statements [about the Vietnam War], always over-optimistic, and the truthful reports of the intelligence community, persistently bleak and ominous, the public statements were likely to win simply because they were public. The great advantage of publicly established and accepted propositions over whatever an individual may secretly know or believe to be the truth is neatly illustrated by a medieval anecdote, according to which a sentry, on duty to watch and warn the townspeople of the approach of the enemy, jokingly sounded a false alarm, and was the last to rush to the walls to defend the town against his imagined enemies. From this, one may conclude that the more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies.

In the Pentagon Papers, we deal with people who did their utmost to win the minds of the people, that is, to manipulate them, but since they labored in a free country where all kinds of information were available, they never really succeeded. Because of their relatively high station and their position in government, they were better shielded—in spite of their privileged knowledge of “top secrets”—against this public information, which also more or less told the factual truth, than those whom they tried to convince and of whom they were likely to think in terms of mere audiences, “silent majorities,” who were supposed to watch the scenarists’ productions. The fact that the Pentagon Papers revealed hardly any spectacular news testifies to the liars’ failure to create the convinced audience which they then could join themselves.

Still, the presence of what [Daniel] Ellsberg has called the process of “internal self-deception” is beyond doubt, but it is as though the normal process of self-deceiving were reversed; it was not as though deception ended with self-deception. The deceivers started with self-deception. Probably because of their high station and their astounding self-assurance, they were so convinced of overwhelming success, not on the battlefield but on the grounds of public relations, and so certain of the soundness of their psychological premises about the unlimited possibilities in manipulating people, that they anticipated general belief and victory in the battle for people’s minds. And since they lived anyhow in a defactualized world, they did not find it difficult to pay no more attention to the fact that their audience refused to be convinced than to other facts.

The internal world of government, with its bureaucracy on one hand, its social life on the other, made self-deception relatively easy. It seems that no ivory tower of the scholars has ever better prepared the mind for wholly ignoring the facts of life than the various think tanks did for the problem-solvers and the reputation of the White House for the President’s advisers. It was in this atmosphere, where defeat was less feared than admitting defeat, that the misleading statements about the disasters of the Têt offensive and the Cambodian invasion were concocted. But what is even more important is that the truth about such decisive matters could be successfully covered up only in these internal circles by worries about how to avoid becoming “the first American President to lose a war” and by the always present preoccupations with the next election.

So far as problem solving, in contrast to public relations managing, is concerned, self-deception, even “internal self-deception,” is no satisfactory answer to the question “How could they?” Self-deception still pre-supposes a distinction between truth and falsehood, between fact and fantasy, which disappears in an entirely defactualized mind. In the realm of politics, where secrecy and deliberate deception have always played a significant role, self-deception is the danger par excellence; the self-deceived deceiver loses all contact, not only with his audience but with the real world which will catch up with him, as he can remove only his mind from it and not his body.

– Hannah Arendt from “Lying in Politics” (footnotes omitted)

Arendt’s prose can be dense, but her ideas provide significant food for thought. She endeavours to answer the question “How could they?”, which is an enduring moral and practical one. When facts no longer matter, theories can run wild, and theorists may be well-insulated by the political bureaucracy and culture, so that they don’t see the bodies on the ground — whether the bodies of napalmed Vietnamese villagers, or the (more recent) “children in cages” which are a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy. (Think also Windrush scandal.)

In a defactualized environment, it is not only the targets of deception who suffer. The deceivers themselves ultimately become casualties, because they lose contact with reality. The narcissist spins a version of reality in which he is always at the centre of the universe, always the star, and always right. In the case of Trump, he cannot tolerate the notion that it rained on the day of his inauguration, or that Obama had a bigger crowd. So the event must be defactualized to conform to his unreal expectations.

However, life is (among other things) our way of training for death, disease and suffering. Having lost contact with reality, the narcissist eventually encounters great suffering. His ego has become brittle; therefore, when death, disease and suffering overtake him, he is shattered.

Spiritual philosophy can help us gain insights into the human condition, as well as the Divine Nature. It can help us lead our lives consciously, with humility, understanding our limitations and weaknesses, and striving to overcome them. We have to accept reality before we can transform it.

Death is a part of life, not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that it is the completion of a cycle. The narcissist is not conscious of his own mortality, or refuses to accept it because the notion would rain on his parade. Therefore, how can he accept life, or make sound decisions in life-or-death matters? He is obsessed to an unnatural degree with preserving an illusion, therefore he is untrustworthy.

Arendt’s analysis of the Vietnam War in “Lying in Politics” includes many insights which help to explain Brexit. In fact, we can use it to derive a general profile of a potentially bad government policy, based on a list of common symptoms:

Symptoms of a Potentially Bad Government Policy

– defactualization (in which facts about the policy no longer matter, being ‘trumped’ by rhetoric)

– shifting rationales for the policy, while the policy itself remains the same

– reports penned by civil servants showing actual effects of the policy, but marked CLASSIFIED, SECRET, or SENSITIVE

– such reports, when leaked to the public, denied as to their accuracy by senior politicians

– the policy persisting even after any initial justification for it has been thoroughly debunked

– an overarching concern with public perceptions about the policy, rather than actual results (image over substance)

– the supposed benefits of the policy are largely theoretical, while the problems associated with pursuing the policy are real world problems

– the policy takes on the air of an end in itself, rather than a means to an end

– early indicators that the policy may be ineffectual, detrimental, or even morally unconscionable are ignored

– because such early indicators are discouraging, the policy ultimately becomes a matter of faith, or a shibboleth of party loyalty or patriotic sentiment

– media reports calling attention to drawbacks of the policy are branded ‘unpatriotic’ or ‘fake news’

While this is anecdotal, I’m reminded once again of the ITV report about British fruit rotting on the vines because EU seasonal workers are no longer willing to brave the ‘hostile environment’ consciously created by successive Tory governments, culminating in Brexit:

To my knowledge, none of the people sporting ‘Believe in Britain’ or ‘Get Brexit Done’ stickers have been willing to go and pick that fruit. This is one early indicator that the ideals of Brexit are out of alignment with the reality on the ground. In the real world, the UK made a decision 45 years ago to become more closely interdependent with other European nations. Such increased interdependence was and is the direction in which the world is moving; and while not unproblemmatical, this movement is largely for the best. Early indicators suggest that retrograde motion a la Brexit may be ineffectual, detrimental, or even morally unconscionable in its impact on the poor, and those in need of social care.

Further Thoughts, and Cambridge Analytica Videos

Each individual has to care for truth. This comes down (in part) to education, ethics, and insight. Unfortunately, the more you cut education funding, and the more you propagate a purely materialistic view of the universe, the less people will care about lying politicians, as long as they’re entertaining on telly and appeal to the lowest common denominator of human emotions. That is why, in one of my earliest posts about Boris Johnson, I noted that as with Donald Trump, his rise to power represents a triumph of entertainment value over character value.

Each individual has free will. Those who have proved untrustworthy in the past may yet redeem themselves and develop trustworthiness. But that’s an iffy proposition, given the leopard/spots conundrum. Those who choose to trust Boris Johnson today may want to consider his very recent betrayal of the DUP.

The problem of lying politicians cannot be considered in isolation from questions about the use of modern technology as a weapon for disseminating propaganda, about how elections are funded, and about transparency. We are nearing the point (or have perhaps already passed it) where those who can afford to buy the best tech can gain unfair advantage having little to do with the quality of their ideas, character, or truthfulness. Manipulation of the masses has become part science, part dark art — and such systematised manipulation poses a very real threat to democracy. Taken together, these four videos concerning Cambridge Analytica underscore the problem:

There’s a kind of story arc to the sequence. The first video includes footage from November 2015, with Cambridge Analytica’s Brittany Kaiser seated next to Arron Banks, explaining how her company would be helping Leave-dot-EU. The last video is a 2019 interview with Kaiser, who has since written a tell-all book highly critical of Cambridge Analytica. She continues to maintain that CA did help Leave-dot-EU win the Brexit referendum. In between are various clips of CEO Alexander Nix denying that CA helped win the Brexit referendum, and elsewhere bragging that it did. As the old Clairol ad goes: Only his hairdresser knows for sure…

The story arc also spans a period encompassing both Cambridge Analytica’s existence and its demise. As France 24 interviewer Jessica Le Masurier notes at time 10:17 in the final video: “Cambridge Analytica is defunct, yet there are many other new or pre-existing companies doing exactly the same thing.”

Of many possible takeaways, one is the palpable perception that voters aren’t being ‘persuaded’ in the traditional (and acceptable) sense. Rather (and especially in the third video concerning Trinidad elections), voters are being subjected to psyops of which they are wholly unaware, by cynical manipulators who seek to actively exploit them. Those Trinidadians persuaded by Cambridge Analytica not to vote at all were seemingly manipulated into doing something which would harm their own (obvious) self-interest in having political representation. This is a form of fraud, but not necessarily one that’s on the statute books.

The implication is that hi-tech con men with big money bankrollers have found ways to undermine the democratic process — putting their thumb on the scale to the tune of a few percentage points, thus changing the outcome. Those touting their ability to win votes through psychological manipulation may exaggerate, but there seems little doubt that their machinations do have some effect. That effect is difficult to quantify, not only because they operate in the shadows, but because the nature of the con is such that if it is done well, voters won’t even be conscious of how they were conned (as in the 1973 crime drama The Sting).

In 2014, prior to the ascendancy of Brexit as a populist movement, it does not appear that there was any great demand on the part of the voting public to leave the EU. The concept had to be mass-marketed and invested with emotional energy, so that by the end of 2019 many voters would end up feeling passionately that “We must get Brexit done!” (Why? Rationale for the policy has continued to shift. Outside the UK, Brexit is widely considered a “solution in search of a problem.”)

There are also deep metaphysical questions related to the issue of lying. What is the nature of Reality? Put into a succinct Einsteinian equation, R = WL + I. That is, Reality equals White Light plus Illusion. If there were zero illusion, then there would just be white light — no creation at all. But when there is too much illusion, then life becomes painful and incomprehensible, as it is for people who suffer from severe mental illness.

So we cannot force or extract absolute truthfulness from anyone, but still there needs to be some shared standard below which we should not fall as individuals, or as a society. That is at least the concept underlying laws against perjury, libel, and securities fraud. Not all forms of persuasion are ethical or legal. Yet, as noted in the Independent article:

Some 88 per cent of the most widely circulated Tory ads during the first four days of December included inaccurate claims, according to disinformation tracking organisation First Draft.

The ads included false claims about the NHS and income tax, as well as the Labour Party and its plans, it said.

Many of those ads – such as the misleadingly edited video of the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer – would be banned if they were commercial advertising, noted the non-partisan Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising (CRPA) in a new report. [Editor’s note: Their acronym comes with a warning for dyslexics.]

Now, it must be said that lies are already omnipresent in commercial ads for products and services — for example, in the form of puffery and speeded-up (or illegible) disclaimers. My friends at Mystery Science Theater 3000 once created a satire on toy commercials which included the disclaimers “Some parts may not exist” and “Some parts may be made of chicken”!

If politicians cannot be held to even the low standards of commercial advertising, then surely something is amiss! Politicians are also lawmakers, and if they’re benefiting from lies and graft, then how can you force them to pass strict laws against lying and graft? Here in the US, we have some (not very effective) laws against telemarketing, but the politicians conveniently exempt themselves from such laws, so in election season you may be bombarded with calls from bots programmed to play you pre-recorded campaign ads. Likewise, there are laws against libel, but there are also loopholes which (under some circumstances) exempt MPs, Congresspeople, and the owners of social media sites (even if they profit from the libel).

When is graft not graft? When it becomes widespread in the form of cronyism or regulatory capture. One pernicious form of regulatory capture occurs when a regulatory agency is stuffed with personnel from the industry it’s supposed to be regulating, or with personnel who largely oppose regulation of the type which is the agency’s core mission. For example: stuffing an agency which was set up to combat global warming with climate change deniers, or lobbyists from the oil, gas, and auto industries, who then proceed to lower emissions standards. See “EPA staff say the Trump administration is changing their mission…” or my own “Scott Pruitt Jokes,” which purports to reveal the (former) EPA chief’s day planner.

The relevance is that the Tories, including Boris Johnson himself, have been accused of being in thrall to an elite dining club consisting of rich donors from the hedge fund industry, fossil fuel industry, as well as a Russian contingent. See, for example, the Open Democracy article “Who’s behind the ‘dark money’ bankrolling our politics?” As with many such articles, there is no claim of outright illegality, but the appearance of cronyism, and the implication that the Tories’ primary mission is to please their mega donors by moving the UK in the direction of a low tax, low regulation, low services ‘Singapore-on-Thames.’

Big money from elite mega donors is arguably what fuels the Tory steamroller with its big media buys. Yet, Boris Johnson is a populist figure who’s good at selling elitist policies like Brexit to working class voters. So, the trust issues surrounding Johnson are not just about his pliable relationship with the truth, but the concern that he may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, pitching pleasant-sounding One Nation platitudes while advancing a long-term agenda which is harmful to workers and the environment. Time will tell.

A great many people have placed their ‘confidence’ in Johnson and ‘supplied’ him with votes. It remains to be seen whether he will repay them in the same manner he has repaid the DUP. After Johnson’s blindingly obvious betrayal of Nigel Dodds, Dodds was handed the proverbial ‘one-way ticket to Palookaville’ by voters in Northern Ireland. Politics remains a cutthroat business.

No one knows for certain how Johnson will govern, but one thing to watch out for is a continued cognitive dissonance between Tory statistics claiming that life is getting better and better every day (in every way), and the evidence of one’s own eyes. If the epidemic in food bank usage and rough sleeping continues to worsen, the book of NHS horror stories continues to thicken, and life after Brexit seems filled with privation, then mayhaps trust in Johnson will prove to have been misplaced. After years of Tory austerity, turning on the money spigots for a short period post-election should not be allowed to confuse the issue.

I should really punctuate this post with a freshly made Bojo parody pic, but haven’t got one ready. So how about this: Here’s Bojo holding up a blank cue card. Make your own meme!

Or you can always fall back on this cornucopia of Boris Johnson Funnies. Collect them all!

From about a year ago (meant purely in fun):

I will close with one more Cambridge Analytica exposé for good measure

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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UK Elections – Such a Sad Result! Part 1

UK elections wrap-up and commentary

Jumping right in, I feel especially bad for Jo Swinson, who impressed me greatly with her character and her hopefulness. Here’s her speech from last Friday:

Other voices I will be sad not to hear in the next parliament include:

Dominic Grieve (Conservative)
Chuka Umunna (Liberal Democrat)
Luciana Berger (Liberal Democrat)
Sarah Wollaston (Liberal Democrat)
Sam Gyimah (Liberal Democrat)
Anna Soubry (Independent Group)

These people were brave truth-tellers, and I’m sentimental about their loss. I would say that like Jo Swinson, they’re victims* of the Tory steamroller, which is fashioned from equal parts big money, big media, and big lies. (There’s a Peter Gabriel song in there somewhere.) What a travesty that Swinson was frozen out of the big ITV debate. Unlike Johnson, she wasn’t hiding in a fridge, but seeking to emerge from one. (*This is not to gloss over the weaknesses of some individual candidates/party manifestos.)

Voters also bear some responsibility for casting out MPs who showed surprising honesty and reasonableness in a time of politics gone mad. It’s true that voters were heavily propagandised, but they could have done more to listen to their better angels. Punishing MPs who had the courage to defect from the two main parties sends absolutely the wrong message for the future.

Just in case you slept through the UK elections or were dead drunk, here’s the major takeaway, delivered without all the pomp and circumstance by me old mucker Basil Brush:

Are there any silver linings on this cloudy morning after? Well, the comedians will have a grand time perfecting their Bojo imitations: freestyle, x-rated, at the dinner table, etc. And maybe the Labour party will re-form as a centre left party that can actually garner popular support in the Northeast again. (Unless the Corbynistas somehow manage to stay in power and pick a Jeremy Mini-Me as their new leader). As for mining communities voting Conservative, I believe it was an SNP chappie who once quipped: “The turkeys aren’t just voting for Christmas, they’re putting the stuffing up their own backsides!” (Might have been Pete Wishart re: Labour MPs voting for Brexit.)

Nothing is completely bad, so we can only hope and pray that Boris Johnson will manage to do good, perhaps by pivoting to the centre and opting for a soft Brexit. But it’s difficult to overcome one’s karma. I fear he will play the role of the lovable buffoon, and turn on the money spigots for awhile, but long-term his government may continue to pursue policies which favour the rich, and deliver the proverbial lump of coal to those most in need.

It’s a hollow victory for Johnson — indeed, what I fear is that he will continue to hollow out the UK so that it’s all bright and shiny with PR glitz on the outside, but inside, the institutions which ideally make the UK a caring society are gutted — strangled by underfunding.

This is purely anecdotal, but recently on James O’Brien’s call-in show on LBC, a gentleman who works with troubled youth told the story of how he called the emergency number for those who attempt self-harm — and got an answerphone. The man was in tears. That’s what I mean about the hollowing out of services meant to make the UK a caring place. All too often, nobody’s home.

Meanwhile, you can be sure the Tories will quote statistics claiming that self-harm is down by x percent, and answerphones are cheaper by y percent. Flying flamingos, Batman! I should really heed the perennial advice of John Bercow: calm myself, meditate, and take some soothing medicament. Undoubtedly, I shall be the better man for it. (Parli won’t be the same without Bercow! This bercow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby bojo…)

The psychedelic tie worn by Bercow in the clip is typical of his outrageous colour sense.

Scot Nats did quite well on Thursday, and I look forward to them actively heckling the Tories in inimitable style, with japes, puffery and performative outrage, as on July 25, 2019:

They’ve often taunted Boris with the line that he’s the “last prime minister of the United Kingdom,” meaning that if he and Brexit are voted in, the Scots will vote out. How does this go down? Scotland calls a second referendum on independence; Westminster says its illegal; the Scots hold it anyway; the vote is for Leave. What then? English troops in Edinburgh? Another Anglo-Scottish war? Tell me how this ends well.

Also a casualty of Thursday’s election was tactical voting — a good idea meant to challenge the primacy of the first-past-the-post system, but badly implemented this time round. Here’s the main vote count for Cities of London and Westminster constituency, where Chuka Umunna was running:

Vickie Aiken (Conservative): 17,049
Chuka Umunna (Liberal Democrat): 13,096
Gordon Nardell (Labour): 11,264
Zack Polanski (Green): 728

As you can see, had Labour and Lib Dems truly cooperated, they could have stopped the Tory candidate, who ended up winning with only 40% of the vote. Sigh…

Part 2 of this series is titled “The search for truth in politics…” and will delve into the problem of lying politicians, as well as the nature of truth itself. In the meantime, please do enjoy these seasonal posts (or ghosts) from Christmas past:

Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful
Jesus is Born – in a World of Many Faiths
Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer
Christmas, Childhood, and Cable Spaghetti
The Twelve Days of Trumpster
‘Twas The Night Before Brexit

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Speech That Got Boris Johnson Elected

Could a computer create the ultimate campaign speech?

Let’s face it: What diesel is to trucking, speeches are to… er, politics. Those tender words of love whispered in the voter’s ear are not unlike the lavish displays put on by the peacock during mating season. With election season gripping the UK (along with the odd cold front and blizzard), we set out to monitor the speechifying exploits of that most colourful of political birds, the blue-lipped bojo.

More than that, we wanted to give Cambridge Analytica a run for its money by designing the ultimate campaign speech with the aid of computer technology. Such a speech would hit all the ideological high points, while also delivering key psychological triggers that would send Tory voters flocking to the polls in support of the former mayor of London.

We rolled up our sleeves, maxed out the ram on our Commodore Amiga, put the kettle on, and engaged in a furious spate of uber geekdom, feeding hundreds of Boris Johnson speeches into the gaping maw of the fully armed Amiga. We then pushed the Cuisinart button (located just beneath the printer port), and waited for what seemed an inordinate period. Finally, after much coughing and spluttering, the computer churned out this. A bit raw, definitely NSFW, but a new landmark in CBJ (or Cyber Boris Johnson). Surely such a speech must, in the immortal words of Cambridge Analytica, create an impactful marketing experience.

The Speech That Got Boris Johnson Elected

[Applause] Good evening, everybody. My friends, good evening. Thank you very much. All I can say is that I think most Conservatives that I’ve spoken to are passionate believers in making hay, uh, north and south of the border, whether it’s at Calais, or Rotterdam, or wherever, by extending the behind, ah, far more than people thought was possible. It’s a very, very simple idea. We asked the people what they thought, they gave us their answer: Ball the man, not the bus.

Is that not a good thing to do? If we ever had to do it again, we would need a bigger bus. Because in Spain, in the pueblos of Andalucia, they have massive Mars bars. More than thirteen hundred brilliant Conservative counselors went down instantly. I don’t think people in this country realise quite how bad the position is. Around the world we have a huge number of really tragic cases. We, in this government, will work flat out, to give this country the extra lubrication it deserves. And that is the work that begins immediately behind that black door.

It’s vital that we do that, so that our EU friends and partners look us deep in the eye and they think: Dude! Friggit, this goes to character and this goes to whether you stick by what you promise. Our mojo has, I’m afraid, become too soft, completely invertebrate. It’s dead and needs to be junked. The public have spotted it, and we need to do something about it, without necessarily getting our heads bitten off. If I’m lucky enough to be elected, I will of course be leading an immediate program of British-made battery technology.

I’m a passionate believer in rubbish-powered pumping pistons out on the streets, with their lovely traditional contours — burly, bulging, faintly reminiscent of a black bowler hat. If they can do it in Spain, why can’t we do it here in the UK? I think actually, plastic butts can be a good thing, a wonderful thing to entrench and intensify the union. Let’s make them in Britain!

A huge amount of work has already been done. Brilliant Scottish kids are growing up to make some badly-designed undergarment that discourages women from getting into politics — that we are selling, that we are using to help to defend and protect our friends and allies around the world. And Australia has bought them. The Canadians, uh, have followed suit, they’ve already done it.

It’s because of the hole, stretching out for years and years every part of the anatomy. Fantastic scheme! And that is what modern conservatism is all about. That is our moral case to the country. It’s true. On the other hand, a feminist is somebody who believes fundamentally in the equality of human beings and kippers.

And I think, to get back to my central point, my first priority is obviously feeding saprophytically on the sense of decay in trust in politics. I’ve made it very clear that we will have abundant murders on the London Underground, to say nothing of serious sexual offences of all kinds, throughout the summer, that actually stimulate economic growth! I hope you will not mind.

Question: Do we worry that you’re a bit of a loony?

It’s so interesting how often this question has come up. When you look at what I’ve done in politics — as the former useless Mayor of London — and what I’ve promised to do to any electorate that is, ah, that has, ah, hired me, I’ve always exceeded superhuman incompetence. ‘Pathetico’ I think is the word I want in Spanish. We can sell it again to the people of this country, cheaply and conveniently. And now’s the time.

Let’s prick the twin puff balls of Jeremy Corbyn, deep fried or otherwise, for a fantastic agenda of modern conservatism. And we can beat him, my friends! And this is what we, this is what we need to do to win: We should be accelerating basic hygiene for Conservatives with their various, their various piscine names. That is the right thing to do, and it will be a huge relief to every girl within reach of the central activity zone of London when we do it. Each Conservative MP must be accompanied by a plastic ice pillow. Doesn’t that make sense? Yes, it certainly does. That is the way forward. I have every confidence that in ninety-nine days time, we will have cracked it.

I’ve got to say I believe firmly in a woman’s right to choose suicide in some African countries. In a feminocracy, that’s the way it should be. We Conservatives believe in a collection of unsavory views about all sorts of subjects. We lead the world! We lead the world! By coming out, finally, we will be able to establish an identity as a kipper smoker in the Isle of Man — or olives or something — and by so doing, we will get our mojo back as a party.

We’re most of the way there. Every Conservative surely believes that all the young women in this country should have the same basic access to our fantastic mojo, both in primary school and in secondary school. There are things that we will be able to do when we come out of the EU, that we weren’t able to do before, using fudge technology. That’s why I made such an emphasis in my speech earlier on, about what I want to do with fudge. It is the great liberator and equaliser of society. I want to encourage millions of women around the world to get into my transport, lose their shirts, and receive twelve years of quality education. We start recruiting forthwith.

However, the President of the United States used fudge that was unacceptable. It is far, far worse than that. The President of the United States is full of codswallop. His economic program would be absolutely catastrophic for this country. So what we should do, is we should immediately get rid of him. I think I’ve made my position clear on that. And of course, having taken that decision, everybody is afraid of the twitstorm that will happen.

I feel I should say something about Theresa May, stamping her foot and clucking her tongue. This bird has now become too tight in some places, and dangerously loose in other places. Fantastic maidenhead! Absolutely colossal! And it is growing the whole time, in a supererogatory way. Popular with taxi drivers themselves, and believe me they’re pretty demanding clients, I happen to remember.

20% bigger than it was in 2010. Lovingly rubbed with British rhubarb. Waiting to be unleashed. It’s ready to go — just add water! And it will be a huge relief to those poor people in Salisbury. It shows what an amazing magnet we are for talent. British cauliflowers do it with confidence. Let’s make them electric! A glorious rebuttal to those sceptics who said it couldn’t be done…

And what I want to do in a nutshell can be summed up as selling the Tories’ brand of unpasteurised minestrone to boys and girls around the world. We did it in London, and we can do it again. That’s why we’re the Conservative Party! Insofar as all subatomic particles survive, we can be very, very proud of what we have achieved!

We must get Brexit done, level up English corporal punishment for the people of Scotland, and unleash the power of tampons. Here’s one I made earlier. Slam it in the oven, and no more VAT on Schrödinger’s Cat. The institution of the monarchy is beyond ridiculous.

We can win, we must win, and with your help we will win! I hope I can count on your support. Thank you very much. [Applause]

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The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization. No cyborgs were harmed in the making of this post.

Ask Dr Johnson!

Readers send in their questions to Dr Boris Johnson, and he answers them in true Tory fashion.

Dear Dr Johnson,

My husband and I vacationed in Swaziland in the summer of 2018. We went for the glass, but stayed for the sorghum! Since then, I discovered I have a large, cauliflower-shaped rash on my left elbow. What is this rash, and do you know of a cure?

Matilda Heath-Mullins

Dear Matilda,

I’m sorry to hear of your ‘rash’ vacation exploits. If it truly is cauliflower-shaped, then perhaps some form of pesticide would avail you. What I always say is British cauliflowers are the best cauliflowers! But under EU regulations, our fantastic British cauliflowers are forbidden to be sold on U.S. Army bases or cooked in U.S. Army kitchens. So we need to get Brexit done, leave the EU, and forge ahead with an amazing new trade deal. Then I’m sure we will experience a veritable renaissance in British cauliflower-growing and consumption. Speaking of consumption, your unusual rash could be a symptom of the latter. I’d have that looked at if I were you.

I happen to be a Swaziland trivia buff. Did you know that the King of Swaziland has 15 wives and 23 children? This hardly compares with the English aristocracy, but they are good people and they are trying.

Swaziland is, of course, a member of the Commonwealth and an area where we’ve already negotiated a fantastic post-Brexit free trade deal. They will be sending us goat meat, and we will be sending them videos of Downton Abbey. Cheers!

Boris Johnson

Dear Dr Johnson,

My little Timmy was playing in the lanes when seemingly out of the blue a lorry carrying elderberries bore down and ran over his tail. We rushed him to A&E at Shrewsbury and Telford, but the wait was horrific. During the 11 hours before Timmy was seen, he lost a lot of blood. It was gushing out all over the waiting room floor, putting us rather in mind of the Hammer Horror era. Finally, a very nice but tired-looking Indian doctor examined him and confirmed that he had, indeed, lost a lot of blood. He said there was a shortage of hemoglobin due to Tory austerity measures, and there was nothing he could do. We buried Timmy in the back yard the next day, and since then our marriage has hit the rocks. My husband’s been made a dundancy and now collects alarm clocks. What do you advise, and how is it the Tories have instituted such drastic cuts that everyone’s tail is on the chopping block?

Melody Rundquist

Dear Melody,

I’m afraid I cannot agree with the premise of your question. Under this Conservative government, hemoglobin production is up 53%, and the production of other bodily fluids has vastly increased. The previous Labour government left us with no bodily fluids whatsoever, and a crudely scribbled note saying ‘Ham in fridge’. Well, that’s the Labour Party for you! Since taking office, this Conservative government has been proactive in increasing bodily fluids across the board. We are directly responsible for upping bile production by 36%, and vomitus by 43%. But we are not ones for resting on our collective laurels. My simple campaign pledge to the people of Shropshire is this: Return me as Prime Minister, and I will level up semen production to hitherto undreamt of levels, and produce a race of British Supermen ready to fight the Third World War! (‘Hear, hear!’)

Coming back to your original question: You fail to state categorically (but strongly imply) that little Timmy was of the, ah, canine persuasion (hence the tail). If Timmy was what we Etonians call Canis lupus familiaris, I must regretfully inform you that, unfair as it may seem, home sapiens receive priority treatment at most A&Es. I am neither a veterinarian, funeral director, nor marriage counselor, so am unable to advise you further.

Boris Johnson

P.S. Under this Conservative government, elderberry production has seen an increase of 26.3%, far greater than any other EU country. The alarm clocks are harmless, unless taken internally.

Dear Dr Johnson,

My wife and I live in West Mersea and are both consummate fish freaks — though as I might prudently add, very conventional in other respects. In our garden pond, we have everything from bass to herring to octopi, and have managed to get them to live harmoniously together by singing to them regularly. They mostly prefer folk tunes, but do not complain too loudly if we slip in a bit of Cole Porter, or the odd aria from Pagliacci. (My wife likes to dress up as Cher and sing ‘Believe’.) Anyway, just last week our prize orangutan Pepe began exhibiting listlessness and shortness of breath. He refused to swim with the other fish, and began whistling ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ on an almost nonstop basis. My wife says it sounds more like the love theme from Romeo and Juliet (the film version with Olivia Hussey), but that is neither here nor there. Pepe also seems to compulsively report the latest news headlines every half hour. What can we do?

Frank and Mildred Wylkes

Dear Frank and Mildred,

Take it from one who knows: You and your wife are not just freaks, but (with apologies to Rick James), superfreaks. Keeping an orangutan in with the fish is bound to dampen their spirits (as well as the orangutan), and Cher impressions are quite déclassé. It all sounds rather hopeless. Orangutans are not good swimmers, and the shortness of breath you describe is entirely to be expected when a tree-dwelling mammal remains in aquatic conditions for extended periods.

Even I sometimes experience shortness of breath in my renowned role as a cunning linguist. And while I regularly pose with fish and fishmongers (see photo below), I am not, strictly speaking, an ichthyologist — nor is Pepe even a fish.

Boris Johnson demonstrates his fish snoggery technique while being coached by a past master

I am therefore unable to answer your question definitively, but have a sneaking suspicion your orangutan has swallowed a small transistor radio. (The news headlines every half hour are more or less a giveaway.) The tune he whistles may be a manifestation of homesickness (as orangutans are not native to West Mersea), but it could also be a mating call. If the Romeo and Juliet theme gets on your nerves, try teaching him something from Porgy and Bess, or any love song that you find more agreeable. Orangutans are talented mimics, and he’s bound to pick it up in no time.

However, I fear that as with certain other letter-writers, your query is rife with superfluous detail and strays rather far from my core area of expertise. I hope future correspondents will stick more to the point, and not take unfair advantage of what is (after all) a free service provided by the Crown.

Boris Johnson

Dear Dr Johnson,

We have a yellow-fronted Amazonian parrot which we love dearly. We think it’s a male, so we named it Romulus. But lately, it has developed a discolouration in the region of the beak. This used to be greyish-brown, but now shows a large white rectangular area. Romulus is very fond of marshmallows, and we worry that feeding ‘him’ too many marshmallows has caused the discolouration. Do you recommend a change of diet?

Edna and Edith Farthingworth

Dear Edna and Edith,

Firstly, I must protest the proliferation of pet complaints among these letters! I state (and repeat for emphasis) that I am not a veterinarian. I did once sleep with a veterinarian, but it was a one-night stand, and she later voted for the Liberal Democrats. I wish her well… As for your Amazonian parrot, I’m afraid it’s suffering from a condition which we Tories call ‘surrender bill’. The large white rectangular area is a classic symptom.

I advise you to prorogue your parrot for at least five weeks, or as long as the Supreme Court will allow. After that, treat it as you would any mushroom, writer, or parliamentarian: Keep it in the dark, and feed it lots of sh-t.

Marshmallows are right out, at least until ‘his’ beak returns to normal. If you have an excess supply of marshmallows, you can send them to my honourable friend the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, who has a peculiar yen for marshmallows. (He puts them in a pudding.)

Boris Johnson

Dear Dr Johnson,

Help! I’m trapped on a fishing boat with a curved cucumber and no condoms. Am I in violation of EU law?



Dear Distressed,

While your question is not a medical one, it does relate to Brexit, so I feel qualified to answer. EU regulations concerning curvature of vegetables only apply to rutabagas, and even then only on oddly-numbered days. As for condoms… EU law requires that all fishing boats be equipped with condiments. I’m afraid this is a rare case where the Sun did cause needless panic due to inaccurate reporting. We must get Brexit done and dusted so that we can finally be free of all these draconian regulations which no one rightly understands. I myself have fallen foul of EU regs regarding serial liars and pompous windbags. Apparently I need some sort of license, or a jab with some foul, froggy concoction that will make me sound like Jacques Cousteau.

Boris Johnson

Send in your letters to Ask Dr Johnson!, but please do keep questions on-topic.

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Disclaimer: All names of letter-writers and pets are fictional. Any resemblance to real parrots, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Update: Sadly, life sometimes imitates art. I posted this parody on November 5. Then on December 9, a story hit the media about a four-year-old boy who was forced to sleep on a pile of coats on the floor at Leeds General Infirmary, for lack of a bed. I want readers to know that the parody predates the story by a month. I would not have made light of this real world incident. The parody stands on its own as a comment on the state of the NHS and Tory austerity measures.

Boris Johnson: Too Clever By Half

Latest Brexit news. Johnson’s “three letters” strategy for weaseling out of the Benn Act and Letwin Amendment is sure to infuriate Remainers. But how will the Scottish court react, and will Johnson’s two-faced (or many-faced) behaviour gain him political advantage?

No question about it: At the populist level where Johnson currently hangs, this latest brush with unlawful behaviour is seen as a hearty f-ck you to Hilary Benn, Oliver Letwin, the Scottish Court of Session, and Remainers in general. But will the tactic succeed or backfire?

My guess is that Johnson will lose in the Scottish court, and then in the Supreme Court, but may score political brownie points by showing himself to be recklessly obsessed with leaving the EU, thus giving Nigel Farage a run for his money.

Money is indeed what worries me at this juncture. The Tories have always been the party of big money, and I wouldn’t put it past them to find a couple of billion with which to essentially bribe some DUP and Labour MPs to vote for Johnsons’s deal. It might be dirty money, but by the time an investigation uncovers this, Brexit may be done and dusted. (I’m speaking hypothetically here. I possess no evidence of actual wrongdoing.)

The three letters strategy undoubtedly seems clever to Johnson and his cronies, but looks rather bonkers to people outside the UK, as if the Brits have finally and completely lost their minds.

The subtext of Johnson’s letter to EU leaders is: “Just ignore Parliament, just ignore the law they passed. Pretend they’re some crazy aunt locked up in the basement of Westminster. We in the Big Boys Club can manage our own affairs without them.”

This pivots to the underlying legal questions: Is Parliament truly sovereign? If they pass a law requiring Johnson to ask for an extension, does that law make asking for an extension the official policy of the UK? And if so, is Johnson required to carry out that policy with integrity, without attempting to undermine or lobby against it? If he intentionally refrains from signing the letter, and also sends (or causes to be sent) additional letters which discourage the EU from granting the extension, does this frustrate the will of Parliament, and frustrate the intention of the law? Will the courts empower some third party to send a more “official” letter that actually includes a signature?

Just as with his unlawful prorogation of Parliament, Johnson is once again acting like a monarch. But he’s continuing to follow the same populist playbook: People vs. Parliament, with Johnson cast as ardent defender of the Will of the People for Brexit. This is rather sick-making for those who see through all the lies and propaganda.

Sadly, the opposition parties find it difficult to agree on a unified strategy, as this rather bonkers news report vividly illustrates (starting at around 13:20):

It underscores my theory that Brexit is like a monkey wrench thrown into the Parliamentary system, causing it to break down (at least temporarily). What’s happening is not stagnation or paralysis, but rather an extended tug-of-war, or a flushing operation needed to restore normalcy. Remain is the normal, sensible state of the UK in relation to the EU, and the best possible deal that can be gotten. People should not give in to Brexit, which remains (as it has always been) an eccentric project of English Conservatives. Stay strong, and keep flushing the system with the Drano of truth! Don’t give in to Tory sandbagging.

The opposition may be driven over the edge by Johnson’s latest antics, which are not just unlawful but insulting, seeking as they do to relegate Parliament to the position of a potted plant. Paraphrasing an old saw: “Don’t get mad, cooperate!” It’s not impossible that opposition parties may finally agree on a vote of no confidence followed by a caretaker PM (John Bercow???). If Johnson is out as Prime Minister, it seems likely the EU would grant an extension to allow the dust to settle. Still, I admit the Tory steamroller is powerful.

The quote that “Character is destiny” is attributed to Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Political number-crunchers believe the Tories need to woo Labour votes to get Brexit over the line. But the supercilious qualities exhibited by Johnson, Rees-Mogg, et al. tend to frustrate any such efforts.

At the end of Saturday’s main festivities in the House of Commons, the Tories left the Speaker and the Opposition without a flaming flamingo of a clue as to what would be happening on Monday. Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was purposely tight-lipped, and unexpectedly did a runner when fellow MPs tried to pry loose crumbs of information.

MPs were equally stymied as to how Johnson planned to both obey the law (as he promised in a filing with the Scottish court), and yet not send a letter requesting an extension to the EU. Tracking Brexit has given me a warm spot in my heart for the Scottish Nationalists, who often come up with off-the-wall jokes about the Tories. Pete Wishart (always good for a guffaw) piped that Johnson could announce his plans on Strictly Come Dancing. One can easily picture a conga line snaking around the studio, consisting of all the people Johnson has b.s.’d over the years.

If you know the plot to The Producers, you know that Max Bialystock got in trouble by promising too much to too many different people. Likewise, Boris Johnson’s trust issues seem to be reaching a zenith with his sellout of the DUP (by putting a customs border in the Irish Sea), and by the incompatible assurances he’s reportedly giving to both the ERG and Labour.

The gentle Sir Keir Starmer metaphorically drew blood with his trenchant analysis of the weaknesses and hypocrisy inherent in the Johnson deal:

Starmer asked why it’s necessary to weaken provisions guaranteeing workers’ rights and environmental protection — unless, of course, you want to deregulate in these areas. Again, it’s rather sick-making when Johnson et al. claim the purpose of weakening these provisions is so that the UK can exceed EU standards. Definite Orwellian territory. As Starmer elucidates so clearly, there’s no law against exceeding EU standards. You only weaken these provisions if you plan to lower standards over time.

Well, so ends another crazy day in Westminster. And you thought things were surreal when every newscast was accompanied by Glockenspiel Man!

Possibly not in the G-Man’s repertoire:

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


“Boris Johnson’s Saturday drama turns to farce – and it was all his own fault”

“Labour could back Brexit bill if second referendum attached, says Starmer”

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Brexit: Further Discussion of Leavers’ Motives

Is the EU crackdown on tax havens another reason for Brexit? We also discuss the Tories’ love of statistics and economic theories, which can sometimes obscure the faces of real people and how they’re affected (Windrush). What about Guy Verhofstadt’s claim that some Brexiters want to turn the UK into a “Singapore at the North Sea”?

In a previous post, I suggested that we might expand on Zanny Minton Beddoes’ analysis of Brexit as a coalition between “red trousers” and “blue collars.” I posited the existence of a third and distinguishable group who funded Brexit, which I dubbed the “rich uncles.” Under that rubric, I listed financial speculators, anti-regulation corporate actors, and Russians or third parties representing Russian interests.

A correspondent has identified another group of “rich uncles” who might fund Leave: those whose wealth is greatly enhanced through the use of tax havens, and who are keenly aware that the EU is trying to crack down on tax avoidance schemes. See these links (as supplied to me):

“European commission to crack down on offshore tax avoidance”

“The more we learn about Brexit, the more crooked it looks”

“EU blacklist names 17 tax havens and puts Caymans and Jersey on notice”

“The Brexiters who put their money offshore”

“Revealed: Isle of Man firm at centre of claims against Arron Banks”

“Arron Banks and Brexit’s offshore secrets”

“UK and territories are ‘greatest enabler’ of tax avoidance, study says”

Of course, the nature of international finance means that much is purposely kept opaque. It’s hard for even seasoned investigators from a single nation to penetrate the complex web of offshore entities woven by those whose speciality is minimising tax bills for their clients. If you’re staring at a financial black box which stretches (hypothetically and figuratively) from the Isle of Man to U.S. Guam, how do you know whether what’s inside is legal or illegal? Where did the money trail begin or end?

This makes it hard to draw direct arrows, and leads to stories which show connections between parties without being able to state categorically that any of them broke the law. Such international finagling to hide assets and minimise taxes certainly looks fishy, is not easily policed, and seems to rarely result in jail time for those caught crossing the (barely visible) line between what you can get away with, and what’s illegal. Those doing the finagling often seem to be one step ahead of the regulators.

Where the world of international finance intersects with the world of Brexit, there are huge clouds of smoke, but so far no one has been able to locate an actionable fire. All those black box entities and subsidiaries of subsidiaries tend to mask the flames.

Brexit is obviously a project of English Conservatives, who have historically been the party of big money; so showing the connection between big money and Brexit is helpful but not earth-shattering — unless investigators can nail down specific violations, and those violations are not swept under the rug.

It can be difficult to prove who owns exactly what, or to be certain which Leavers are motivated by what factors, given that Leave has become a mass movement or mania. Perhaps no one theory explains Brexit — or at least no one theory explains all the different subgroups who’ve piled on.

There seems little doubt that the uber-wealthy with tons of offshore money can be passionately pro Brexit, and not averse to playing the role of “rich uncle.” This includes the owners of some tabloids. In a sense, this fills in a missing puzzle piece: Most EU regulations don’t impact negatively on the daily lives of most UK citizens. In fact, quite the opposite: EU regulations tend to guarantee workers’ rights, safe food and medicine, etc. Why then have numerous fake news stories been circulated about the EU, with themes typically suggesting that the EU is going to ban something Britons like, e.g. pounds and ounces?

There’s a whole website devoted to debunking such Euromyths, which often appear in tabloids like the Sun. (And yes, the EU did alphabetize them. The C’s alone contain Euromyths about everything from condoms to cucumbers. Fishing boats must carry cucumbers, and condoms must be straight. Or maybe I have that wrong, and it’s the fishermen who must be straight…)

Perhaps one explanation for recent Euromyths touted to the public is that the EU is actually poised to crack down on offshore tax avoidance schemes, an issue which only affects the uber-rich. So the public must be given fake reasons to hate the EU.

Who are the con men, and who are the conned? If Brexit in some respects resembles a huge Ponzi scheme or multi-level marketing scam, there may be some people situated at the mid-level who are true believers, and whose sales pitch is sincere (if misguided). There are also those “good government” types for whom process is more important than outcome. They argue that regardless of how the Leave vote was won, a majority did vote for Leave, so government is duty-bound to implement it. (Flawed logic, in my opinion.)

Brexit is sometimes described as an outward manifestation of a decades-long Tory psychodrama. Some Tories exhibit an inbred sense that they are born to rule and born to empire. There’s an element of paternalism in that, an often unspoken assumption that what the English decide will (of course!) be best for Scotland and the other nations; and if the system is gamed to favour the English aristocracy, the poor will benefit from the runnel. (A variation on trickle-down economics.)

One should therefore not assume that the Tories hate the poor or wish them ill, or that every Tory move is a conscious plot to harm the less fortunate. Many Tories live in their own bubble world (as do members of many political, social, and religious groupings.) The Tories are able — through a combination of willful blindness, paternalism, superciliousness, and over-reliance on questionable statistics — to believe that all their policies are beneficial — even where a more objective analysis would tend to reveal manifold harms.

Perhaps, rather than there being a single conspiracy theory which explains Brexit, there is a confluence of interests at the top of the pyramid, coupled with the power and influence to persuade those lower down that Brexit is something beneficial. It must be remembered that some Labour MPs have their own reasons for supporting Brexit, such as political expediency or ideological disagreement with the EU.

I want to be clear that I consider some Tories to be very decent folk who would personally extend kindness to anyone in need, and who favour policies which they honestly believe to be of benefit — not just to the upper class, but to the nation as a whole. Even some Tories who voted for austerity measures did so because, based on their education and upbringing, they were absolutely convinced that debt reduction was the only viable choice following the Great Recession.

But as for Brexit, that policy remains redolent with the stench of lies. Maybe those who consciously craft the lies are more guilty than those who merely go along with them; but if we all had a more sincere longing for truth, and were more scrupulous in rejecting lies (and in permanently expelling politicians caught lying), then we might be able to fashion a Brexit-free zone.

Each individual has a role to play in creating a society which is fundamentally honest. At the same time, improvements in education might help the general public identify the techniques of populism, and understand how social media can be used to unfairly manipulate opinion. A better-informed and educated public is less likely to be deceived by politicians who use populist techniques to put over elitist policies like Brexit.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The Tories are fanatics for statistics. According to them, everything is going swimmingly well, and life is getting better and better each day! On the other hand, one hears that food banks are overflowing with customers, homelessness is epidemic, and some schools close on Fridays because they can’t afford to stay open five days a week. A United Nations report (presumably apolitical) states that poverty in the UK is “systemic” and “tragic.” According to Prof Philip Ashton — the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty — quoted in this BBC article: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

I would argue that said replacement also creates a need to relocate blame for the harsh conditions thus created. Don’t blame vulture capitalists for the financial meltdown of 2008, nor blame the Tories for subsequent austerity measures. If you’re living in poverty, blame immigrants and the EU, and threaten to riot if Parliament thwarts the “will of the people” by failing to pass the government’s Brexit deal. (Obviously, I’m being sarcastic.)

However well-meaning some Tories may be, their love of statistics and economic theories may blind them to the real world consequences of policies which look good on paper — or which at least make them look good to their conservative base. The Windrush scandal was caused in part by excessive zeal to make good on Conservative Party promises to decrease net immigration figures. The people affected by the policies had real faces and real stories, which Amelia Gentleman brings to light in her book The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment:

Yet, these people didn’t seem to “register” with government bureaucrats intent on tamping down the figures.

I don’t want to wax alarmist, but still: When we hear government ministers talk about “short-term displacements” caused by Brexit, we need to ask, “How many people will die because of Brexit?” It’s a valid question, even if not a polite or subtle one. It concerns those people just barely getting by today who may go under if conditions worsen even slightly.

Returning to the possible motives of Leavers: It’s widely implied in UK media that changes to the backstop are the only aspect of Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal which fails to meet with EU approval. But if you suss out EU spokespeople, it’s clear they’re also objecting to a “downgrade” of the political declaration which scraps language guaranteeing workers’ rights and environmental protections. See “Beyond the backstop: how Johnson wants to change Brexit deal” in the Guardian.

These changes scrapping certain protections lend credence to the theory that Johnson has thrown in his lot with those who favour a low tax, low regulation Singaporean model for post-Brexit Britain. Witness this exchange in EU Parliament, where Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt accuses the (perennially loud-mouthed) Brexit Party of wanting to turn the UK into “a Singapore at the North Sea”:

The video is edited by the Sun to bring out conflictual elements and perhaps glorify the Brexit Party; but it does suggest that some European leaders think they know what the end game for Brexit really is.

As always, you can pick your theory of choice. And by the way, the video does show that factionalism and incivility are not confined to the House of Commons. Madam President, I would accuse Mr Farage, that worthless piece of belly-button lint, of closing the Barnier door after the horse has already gone to the Verhofstadt… 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Brexit, Strange Loops, Star Trek and the New Johnson Plan

Understanding where we are with Brexit, by examining where we’ve been. We also ask the question: How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?

Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan has been dubbed “two borders for four years.” Pardon me, but wasn’t that the basic setup for Rising Damp?

Of the many possible scenarios describing where Brexit is headed, in this post I’m concerned with one particular scenario which sports these features:

– The UK doesn’t leave the EU on October 31st.
– Boris Johnson or another government official is forced by the Benn Act to request an extension.
– The EU grants an extension of a couple of months.
– A general election ensues in the UK.
– The election returns either a hung Parliament, or a very slender, unconvincing Tory majority.

Some would call this the “back where we started” scenario, since it’s more or less where we stood after Theresa May called a snap election in 2017. But it’s also an example of a strange loop. The main feature of strange loops is that after traveling a considerable distance and expending a lot of energy, you find yourself (inexplicably) back where you started. I first read about strange loops in Doug Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach. One of several examples he cites is a Bach piece which modulates into different keys, seemingly getting farther and farther away from the starting point, but (surprisingly) arriving back at the “home” key by the final bar (though an octave higher). Such is the endlessly-rising canon from Bach’s Musical Offering.

One type of strange loop often explored in sci-fi and fantasy is the time loop, of which a popular example is “Cause and Effect,” an episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. (The film Groundhog Day is another example.) You can read more about the TNG episode here. (I leave it to Whovians to enumerate all the relevant Doctor Who episodes.)

When characters are caught in a time loop, they keep re-experiencing the same set of actions or circumstances (sometimes with minor variations). They may gradually become aware that they’re caught in a time loop, and evolve a strategy for breaking out of it. This might consist of tying a string around one’s finger (metaphorically speaking), so that when one heads back into the next iteration of the loop, one has some inkling of what to do or not to do — what to change in order to not keep getting the same result. As this applies to Brexit, we need to understand what mistakes Theresa May made in nearly identical circumstances, and resolve not to make them again.

After the snap election of 2017, Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament, and had to enter into a so-called “confidence and supply agreement” with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in order to have even a slender working majority. Under those circumstances, passing legislation (especially if it’s controversial) requires working across the house to reach a compromise. So, a Conservative prime minister would need to compromise with Labour on an issue like Brexit.

However, Theresa May insisted on acting as if she had carte blanche to push through her preferred Brexit deal, regardless of what opposition parties thought about it. She kept bringing the same deal back again and again, trying to force Parliament to vote for it by threatening that it was either her deal or no deal. This brute force strategy went over like the proverbial lead balloon. It exasperated and infuriated Parliament; but May didn’t begin to change it until the end of her tenure, by which time it was too late.

What May had mostly done was to throw scraps of meat to her right flank, i.e., to the European Research Group (ERG), the most ardent Brexiters. Those scraps of meat failed to satisfy them, and they ended up eating her instead, then installing Boris Johnson, whom they regarded as more Brexity. (Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss…)

Under our specified scenario, Johnson may find himself in much the same pickle as Mrs. May, with little room to negotiate. Still, Johnson (or whoever is PM) should not repeat the mistakes of the previous loop, by trying to force through a hard Brexit that Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Scottish Nationalists can’t sign onto. Rather, the next PM should negotiate in good faith across the house in order to arrive at a deal which can both gain a majority in Parliament, and also satisfy the core concerns of the EU regarding the Irish backstop.

This would probably result in a softer Brexit than the ERG would like; but what’s lost in ERG votes would ideally be made up with more votes garnered from opposition parties. Compromise may or may not be possible (or even desirable), but that’s probably what genuine compromise would look like. That’s a way out of the dreaded time loop.

A soft Brexit is still inferior to the deal which the UK currently enjoys with the EU, but a soft Brexit would at least be less damaging than a hard Brexit or no-deal Brexit. How remarkable that a policy originally sold as bringing sunlit uplands and windfalls for the NHS should, in the cold light of morning, be revealed as a policy requiring us to minimize the damage. If I hear one more person say, “We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this,” I’ll seriously freak!

A footnote on compromise: It requires trust, but Johnson is considered untrustworthy, especially after he tried to prorogue Parliament for five weeks and pretend that was normal. (The Supreme Court decided it wasn’t.) At the time, I had this recurring image of a young and foolish lad taking a cricket bat to a hive of bees: “Take that, you dratted bees!” — not thinking what would happen if the bees survived. And indeed, when Parliament returned on September 25, their marathon session was filled with rancour.

Some female Labour MPs were basically telling Johnson: Don’t call the Benn Act the Surrender Act, because we get death threats quoting that language, and one of our number (Jo Cox) was murdered by a right-wing extremist. To which Johnson replied “Humbug!” and continued to repeat “Surrender Act” about 12 times, allegedly because it tested well with his base. Perhaps both sides were responsible for the breakdown in civility, but on this occasion I can’t help feeling that the Tories were the worse provocateurs.

Latest Brexit Gripes

Just now I heard a fellow from the Brexit Party, Julian Malins Q.C., describing a no-deal Brexit as a “clean break.” It is anything but. After 45 years of intense cooperation between the UK and EU, there are many, many helpful structures which connect the two, covering multiple areas: everything from food, medicine, finance, education, travel, security arrangements, and shared commitments to continuing peace in Europe. It may help you to picture these structures as a great expanse of skyscrapers filled with offices where people have spent decades learning to cooperate on all the issues which together comprise the minutiae of daily life. Their successes greatly outnumber their failures.

A no-deal Brexit means that most of those structures are demolished overnight, leaving only rubble. It is not a “clean break.” Rather, on November 1 you’re faced with the daunting task of cleaning up that rubble, and starting to build new structures to replace the ones you destroyed with a no-deal Brexit. You are now outside the EU, so the terms you can negotiate are less favourable than before. Plus, you’re likely, at the very outset, to face the same issues you failed to resolve during prior negotiations, as this BBC article astutely points out.

Another of my gripes is the claim: “Parliament can only say what they’re against, but not what they’re for.” Here, it helps to put aside the Leave/Remain dichotomy for a moment, and concentrate solely on getting the best deal possible from the EU. The Brexit which was advertised in 2016 has proved undeliverable. After years of research and discussion, it’s become apparent that the Brexit which is deliverable is not much liked by either Leavers or Remainers. Its benefits fall far short of what was promised, and far short of what the UK currently enjoys through EU membership. At the same time, the problems created by Brexit are manifold. Some may even be insuperable.

Parliament has been voting fairly consistently for the best deal the UK can get from the EU, which on careful inspection turns out to be the deal the UK already has. It helps to get over this polarization around Remain and Leave. Remain is a label for one kind of deal with the EU, while Leave is a label for a different kind of deal. Those who compare them carefully and objectively tend to find that Remain is the better deal.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the general public is majority Leave, while Parliament is majority Remain. It pains me to say this, but one possible explanation for the divergence is that Brexit is a specialist subject which requires thoughtful analysis by persons with some background in the relevant fields, or a general ability (as well as the time and interest) to educate themselves. Based on my informal survey (through media ingestion) of man-or-woman-in-the-street opinions about Brexit, the general public largely lacks these qualifications, while many people in Parliament possess them.

The problem is complicated by the ways in which propaganda and money were used to turn public opinion against the EU. Parliamentarians, being politicians themselves, tend to be more aware of how propaganda and money can distort reality; they can (potentially) see through the conjuring tricks, and plot a course which is more sane and rational. That’s one of the benefits of representative democracy over direct democracy.

If the general public were to develop a mad posh for putting arsenic in their tea, one hopes that Parliament would be proactive in passing legislation which makes arsenic difficult to obtain, in order to reduce the number of deaths. Populists might call that Parliament thwarting the will of the people. I would call it Parliament acting responsibly to protect the interests of the people — Parliament doing its constitutional duty while receiving precious little thanks.

What we find in the present period is that populist strongmen want to bypass (or prorogue) democratic institutions set up as safeguards — safeguards intended to prevent mad poshes from leading the country into ruin. Like the madness for tulip bulbs in the early seventeenth century, or Internet stocks in the late twentieth, Brexit is such a mad posh. There are a few people — very shrewd and wealthy — who may benefit from it (e.g. financial speculators, disaster capitalists, Russian oligarchs), but for most people it is likely to lead to a reduced standard of living, particularly in the short term. And while the quote from Keynes that “in the long run, we are all dead” is often taken out of context, it does have its broader application to the ethics of Brexit. Short-term displacements will hit the poor hardest, especially women in their role as caregivers. Baroness Bull waxes eloquent on this point:

Perhaps the biggest threat to women is dependent on what happens to our economy if — and after — we leave the EU. Any negative impacts of an orderly Brexit, or, in the worst case, of leaving without a deal, will hit women — specifically, the most vulnerable women in our society — hardest. Reductions in public spending have a higher impact on women, as the primary users of public services. Cuts in public sector employment or pay disproportionately affect women because of their greater concentration in this sector. Strains on social care increase pressures on women because they are more likely to care for elderly or disabled family members.

Baroness Bull of Aldwych

In what I may be so bold as to call the “consciousness” of Brexit, there is a certain hard-heartedness or lack of empathy. Perhaps this is why those women who speak up for the poor and downtrodden, and oppose Brexit because they know it will most harm those least able to cope with scarcity, are targeted for abuse and accused of being traitors. For in the consciousness of Brexit, there is also some misplaced relic of World War II thinking, as if the EU were an enemy which must be vanquished, and those who favour Remain are somehow collaborators. So, in addition to many logical reasons for opposing Brexit, one can oppose it because one recognizes that it does not proceed from a good consciousness, but rather from a distorted picture of reality which seems to bring out people’s hatred and misogyny.

The dove has torn her wing, so no more songs of love…

Expanding on Zanny Minton Beddoes’ Analysis of Brexit

Another person who’s influenced my thinking on Brexit is Zanny Minton Beddoes, who edits The Economist. She’s smart, poised, and a terrific explainer of things Brexit and UK politics, as here:

She suggests that the reason the Brexit referendum succeeded is because it was a coalition between “red trousers” and “blue collars.” The “blue collars” are obviously blue-collar workers. The “red trousers” are the wing of the Conservative Party which have historically been Eurosceptics and have (for decades) clamoured and harrumphed for the UK to leave the EU. It may be argued that prior to 2016, they were largely dismissed as nutters.

Similarly, before 2016 few “average” Britons thought much about the EU. Leaving it was not high on their list of priorities, and doing so certainly had no aura of a universal panacea about it. They did not believe the EU had robbed them of their sovereignty or depressed their wages until they were heavily propagandized to believe so. Realistically, the financial crisis of 2008 followed by years of austerity were major factors leading to deplorable conditions for the poor. As the joke about Tory austerity goes, “There are too many libraries in Wolverhampton. We must shut them down!”

What I want to focus on is exactly how did this “coalition” between red trousers and blue collars develop? Was it spontaneous combustion, or something more akin to arson? Did either the red trousers or blue collars possess both the means and willingness to pour millions of pounds into the Leave campaign? If not, where did those millions come from? Is there a third group which we might call “rich uncles” who are largely distinguishable from both red trousers and blue collars, and who funded Leave for their own self-interested reasons?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but based on my reading it’s possible that some such “rich uncles” included:

– Financial speculators who thought that Brexit presented an opportunity to make a killing by (for example) shorting the pound.
– Corporate actors who believed that long-term, getting the UK out of the EU could lead to a rollback of workers’ rights and environmental protection regs, which would boost corporate profits.
– Russians, or third parties representing Russian interests, who believed that both the UK and EU would be weaker after Brexit, and that Russia would be a net beneficiary.

If this list is accurate, then some of the rich uncles’ support for Leave would necessarily have been covert.

The “just get it done” Meme

If you’ve ever seen nature footage of a cheetah taking down an impala, you know that once the cheetah sinks its teeth in, it hangs on until its prey is all tuckered out and no longer has the will to fight. The Tory strategy with Brexit strikes me as similar. Long live the bulldog breed!

In the modern political era, it’s common to take a poll, find out what the public are thinking, then simply feed that back to them during an election campaign. Johnson et al. have obviously found that the average voter is thinking:

– Brexit: Just get it done
– More police on the streets
– More money for the NHS, and for education

So that’s what the Tories are promising. However, “just get it done” is a fairly nonsensical slogan regarding Brexit. At the populist level, it’s as if Brexit were a TV series which has gone on for too many years, so people are sick of it and want to see it cancelled. But Brexit more properly admits of karmic explanation: While Brexit is truly a mess, it’s a mess which was painstakingly constructed over a number of years. There is no push-button solution. The sad truth is that the mess must be painstakingly cleaned up, dismantled. Regardless of which scenario eventually prevails, fixing Brexit will take time. Again referencing the Beeb: “For anyone who has had enough of Brexit, the uncomfortable fact is that — whatever the outcome — many years of technical talks and political drama lie ahead.”

Brexit was marketed as a push-button solution to underlying problems which were not, in the main, caused by EU membership. Now “just get it done” is the new push-button solution to the slew of problems spawned by Brexit. This inane solution is being marketed by the same old “peesome threesome” — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Dominic Cummings — that brought us Brexit in the first place. And if Brexit is not handled with great diplomacy, there will be no more “awesome foursome.” The Scots may be the first to leave.

When it comes to just getting it done, how about harvesting those fantastic British crops? Sadly, the raspberries are rotting on the vine, because not many seasonal workers from the EU are willing to come and pick them anymore. This ITV report explains:

To Compromise or Not?

There are certain types of compromise which strike us as inherently reasonable. To take a hypothetical example: Education advocates say the schools need an infusion of one hundred million pounds. Government ministers say there is no money available. Eventually, a compromise is reached at fifty million pounds.

Brexit is a more difficult issue on which to compromise. One reason is that it was marketed under false pretenses. Brexit reality differs so markedly from Brexit fantasy that it feels odd to try and interpolate between the two, to find centre ground. How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?

I respect people who want to vote for a compromise deal, but I tend to be more of a Remain purist. My feeling is: Get the policy right, and over time the politics can be fixed. The mad posh for Brexit cannot last forever; but once you’re out of the EU, you’re out of the EU. It’s not like a magazine subscription which you can simply renew when the mood strikes you. The fruit which has rotted can never be reclaimed, and this may apply to the next generation of young people, who may find their options for education and enlightenment severely curtailed by Brexit.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Brexit Analysis: Real World Effects of Proroguing Parliament

As Brexit aficionados would know, the UK’s Supreme Court is currently reviewing whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament is or is not legal. Johnson essentially sent the House of Commons on a five-week forced vacation during which time they cannot sit or hold committee meetings.

Of course, it’s perfectly obvious in the abstract that this means MPs cannot pass any legislation, or perform vital investigative and oversight functions, holding government ministers accountable for their policies, actions, and statements. Such oversight includes determining whether government are faithfully obeying and implementing laws which Parliament passed, or are relaying accurate information to the public on issues about which the public are rightfully concerned and have a need to know.

However, at least one Supreme Court member, Baroness Hale, has expressed interest in seeing real world examples of what Parliament are being prevented from doing as a result of being prorogued. Hence this blog post, hastily written, but providing two major examples and one minor example.

On the last day the House of Commons sat before being prorogued (September 10), Dr. Sarah Wollaston — who chairs both the Liaison and Health Committees — noted that by proroguing Parliament, Johnson neatly sidestepped appearing before the former, which he was scheduled to do the very next day (September 11).

I’m appalled. The prime minister is running away from scrutiny. We had a series of reassurances from him over the summer that he would come to the liaison committee – initially before parliament came back, so on the first Monday. He then moved that date to this coming Wednesday and we very specifically queried with him about the position of prorogation and he assured us that he would be coming to liaison.

I’m afraid that is a promise broken because he has prorogued parliament and select committees can’t sit. But in fact we decided that we would invite him anyway – that we would come back and sit on an informal basis, and I’m afraid we’ve heard today that he’s not prepared to come.

He is unaccountable. We have seen how everything has unravelled, with just a week of scrutiny in parliament. And I suspect that he didn’t want that to continue.

— Sarah Wollaston, BBC Newsnight interview, Sep-10-2019. Transcript published online by The Guardian here.

Wollaston is a medical doctor who left the Conservative party last February, and is currently a Lib Dem. She has a history of grilling the prior PM, Theresa May, about the effects which a no-deal Brexit would have on patient care:

Wollaston is a gifted, perspicacious, perhaps even prescient questioner who is never distracted by spin, and always manages to bring the witness back to her original question. It’s virtually certain that had Boris Johnson appeared as scheduled before the Liaison Committee, he would have faced tough questioning about the shortages of medicine predicted by the government’s own Operation Yellowhammer documents (in the event of no-deal), which were leaked to the press, and which the House of Commons subsequently required the government to release in full. (They only released a summary.) It is unlikely that Johnson’s legendary tactic of throwing a dead cat on the table would have fazed Wollaston in the least.

Whilst debates in the Commons are often dramatic — as can be Prime Minister’s Questions — much of the genuine oversight work is done in relatively sedate committee meetings where ministers are questioned slowly and patiently by MPs, with ample time for follow-ups, which are often needed to hone in on the truth. (Crucial where the facts are not flattering to the government, and ministers are inclined to evade, spin, or even openly deceive.)

Indeed, my second example relates to ongoing controversies about Operation Yellowhammer. The government documents originally leaked to the Sunday Times indicated that the assessments contained therein represented the “base case” — i.e., what was likely to occur in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, government ministers (including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsome) have claimed that:

1. Operation Yellowhammer is an old, outdated report describing possible effects of a no-deal Brexit which have largely been mitigated through careful government planning.

2. The effects described in Operation Yellowhammer — such as shortages of food and medicine, civil unrest, and the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland — were never anything but worst case scenarios, not “base case” or likely effects.

This is a significant issue, the facts about which were, prior to prorogation, being actively pursued in committee meetings where ministers were required to testify.

One such meeting of note occurred on September 5, when the chair of the Select Committee on Exiting the EU, Hilary Benn, questioned Michael Gove, who is the cabinet minister in charge of Brexit preparations. Benn questioned Gove carefully, patiently, and at length. Though reluctant to do so, and initially denying it, Gove was eventually forced to admit that — contrary to what he and other ministers were claiming — Operation Yellowhammer appears to describe the base case, not the worst case scenario. This information is important because:

1. The public have a right to know what to expect in the case of a no-deal Brexit, and to arrange their personal affairs accordingly.

2. MPs who may be required to vote on (or even originate) Brexit-related legislation likewise need accurate information in order to make informed, conscientious choices on behalf of their constituents.

This video of the hearing is concrete evidence of the type of oversight in which the House of Commons would surely be engaged were it not prorogued:

This tweet by Benn shows a transcript of the relevant part — where Gove is forced to backtrack, correct his earlier statement, and admit that the Yellowhammer report contains the phrase “base scenario”:

Though dull, the video does show Gove squirming, spinning, and hedging. Thus, one possible motive for proroguing Parliament is so that government ministers don’t have to face skilled and dedicated truth-squaders until after they’ve nearly run out the clock to a no-deal Brexit. In that respect, a non-sitting House equals a license to spin.

Ian Dunt seems to have live-tweeted the hearing; his pithy comments may provide additional insight:

You can view his complete live-tweet more easily on Threader.

But the story doesn’t end there. Subsequent to the prorogation of Parliament, there have been renewed efforts by ministers to float the story that Operation Yellowhammer represents only a worst case scenario. When government finally did release the report, in addition to redacting it, they apparently retitled it. An article (with typos) on The New European discusses these developments, referencing a letter Benn sent to Gove on September 17:

In a letter, Benn said: “I would be grateful if you could explain why the document we received is entitled the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’, whereas it has been reported that a very similar if not identical version obtained by the Sunday Times was entitled the ‘base scenario’.

Benn has tweeted the complete letter:

The crucial point is that because Parliament is currently prorogued, it’s doubtful that Gove is under much pressure to respond. If he fails to do so, he cannot be hauled before the relevant committee(s), because the relevant committee(s) cannot meet! He presumably can’t be held in contempt, because that too would be a function of a sitting Parliament.

In practical terms, proroguing means that Hilary Benn cannot bring Michael Gove before the Brexit Select Committee and ask him: “I thought we’d cleared up this business about Operation Yellowhammer being a worst case scenario. Why are you now resurrecting that claim in government statements?”

As regards contempt, note well that Dominic Cummings was found in contempt of Parliament in March, 2019. Cummings is a former special adviser to Michael Gove, and former campaign director of Vote Leave. He is currently a senior adviser to Prime Minister Johnson, and is alleged to be a major architect of Johnson’s policies and tactics regarding Brexit, including the prorogation itself. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the Johnson/Gove/Cummings camp would be sensitive to the possibility that a sitting House of Commons might exercise its powers of contempt if confronted with a no-show witness, or a witness who knowingly deceived a committee of the House.

A third example, which I do not describe in detail, concerns Amber Rudd, the former Work and Pensions Secretary. She resigned from the Johnson cabinet shortly before the proroguing of Parliament. Her main stated reason was that she saw a huge gap between Johnson’s public claims that he was actively seeking a deal with the EU, and her perception as a cabinet insider that most of the effort was going into planning for no-deal, and that no concrete proposals were being put forward by Johnson to actually get a deal.

The strong implication that government were saying one thing while doing quite another thus came to a head shortly before Parliament was prorogued. It is likely that had Parliament not been prorogued, relevant committees would have held hearings on this issue in order to get at the truth.

These examples speak to both motive and real world effects. Parliament has been prorogued for an excessively and praeternaturally long period at a time when its oversight functions are most desperately needed — a time when government are contemplating taking drastic actions (e.g. leaving the EU without a deal), while at the same time there remain serious questions about the accuracy of the information government are releasing to the public.

Such examples put “meat on the bone,” making the abstract notion that Parliament is being prevented from performing its duties more concrete, and more relevant to the day-to-day issues faced by the UK in the lead-up to the October 31st Brexit deadline.

These examples could, in turn, be bolstered with additional evidence and citations, and put into the form of an addendum to the legal briefs, in a manner which might satisfy the Court as to the real world effects of prorogation.

The inevitable conclusion is that Parliament has been prorogued not merely for political reasons, but for reasons intended to frustrate its core function. Parliament has been prorogued to prevent it from scrutinising and overseeing exactly those aspects of government which, in a parliamentary democracy, it surely must scrutinise, oversee, and respond to in timely fashion. The clock is ticking!

Yet, even if one were to ascribe the most benign of motives to Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament, the malign effects still persist. On that basis alone, it should be declared illegal.

There is, then, a useful distinction to be made between the courts wading into day-to-day political matters, or (as here) the courts preventing the executive branch from sabotaging the core function of the legislative branch. A government might conceivably have various permissible motives for proroguing Parliament, some of which might even be political; but frustrating the core function of Parliament is simply not a permissible motive, and the effects thus produced do not comprise a constitutionally acceptable outcome.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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UK Politics Update #1

Latest skinny on the Boris Johnson administration, Change UK, Lib Dems, Labour, and a Rube Goldberg-like plan to stop a no-deal Brexit. Plus, we force-feed Jeremy Corbyn a nice kosher meal, that he shouldn’t be so skinny!

I don’t write much about American politics these days. It’s too depressing, with the mass shooting du jour egged on in part by racist comments from our president. He’s desperate to get re-elected by appealing solely to his base, which obviously includes white supremacists. That desperation is driven not just by political ambition and narcissism, but by the desire to stay out of the slammer. If Trump is not re-elected, there’s a fair chance he’ll be indicted for obstruction of justice. I feel as though I’ve done my part with numerous anti-Trump posts in the past. At this point, it’s like carrying coals to Newcastle.

I’m more interested in UK politics these days, maybe because it’s less predictable and can still make me laugh. There’s also the slow-motion train wreck aspect, which I’ve alluded to elsewhere. And if course, I love the Brits.

A lot has been happening in UK politics, much of it bad. Since being selected Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has appointed a diversity cabinet — but diversity is in the eye of the beholder. Some would say he’s appointed a cabinet consisting primarily of well-heeled Thatcherite toffs, some of whom happen to be non-white. This is faux diversity at best, with no true diversity of politics or culture, but rather the shared culture of money in politics. Johnson’s unity cabinet reflects a bunker mentality, with potential appointees required to sign a no-deal Brexit loyalty oath, and expected to be part of an aggressive general election strategy.

That strategy includes extensive deception about Brexit (surprise, surprise!), as well as a policy which Johnson announced in his first speech as PM, to provide “extra lubrication” to the UK economy by stiffing the EU for the 39 billion pounds owed it. At some point, the UK may want to negotiate a trade deal with the EU. That’s when the unpaid bill for 39 billion is likely to come due. The billions Johnson is currently dispensing like a fruit machine gone bonkers definitely won’t be lubricating future trade talks, and the British public are unlikely to see much of it once elections are over and done. But for that brief moment which is the election season, the party of austerity shall become the party of casting its bread upon the waters, the party of borrow and spend. I wonder how much interest the EU will charge on the 39 billion.

Johnson’s rhetoric often waxes Orwellian in its internal contradictions: The EU are our “friends and partners,” but those who try to maintain a relatively close and civil relationship with them are “collaborators.” No-deal is only a one-in-a-million chance and will not damage the economy, but the government are planning huge bailouts (known as “Operation Kingfisher”) to prop up businesses which fail.

I’m reminded of a line from a Raymond Chandler detective yarn: “I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.” Likewise, as soon as anyone says that such-and-such won’t wreck the UK economy, you’d better start a mammoth contingency fund. Convert all your sterling to a more stable currency, like nacho chips. 😉

More On No-Deal Brexit Machinations

The consenus among political mavens is that the UK is headed toward a no-deal Brexit or crash-out from the EU, while at the same time the Johnson administration is engaged in a coordinated strategy of blaming the EU — and now British collaborators as well. It makes a kind of perverse sense that just as Brexit has philosophical underpinnings rooted in archaic World War II thinking, now that things are approaching a crisis point it becomes necessary to firm up perceptions about who’s the evil enemy (the EU), and who’s helping them work their evil (those accused of being collaborators, like Philip Hammond).

Hammond is, of course, a Tory ex-chancellor, Theresa May loyalist, and true believer in leaving the EU with a deal — a good deal as was promised by the Leave campaign. Hammond has made it clear that to him, leaving without a deal would be as much a “betrayal” of Brexit as not leaving at all. Because he strongly opposes no-deal, he’s been branded a “collaborator” by Boris Johnson. This occurred in remarks Johnson made in his premiere “People’s PMQs” Facebook video discussed here, though he did not identify Hammond by name.

Johnson’s public diplomacy on Brexit might be dubbed the Br’er Rabbit strategy: Oh please, European Union, don’t throw us in the no-deal patch. Anything but that! This meme, perhaps better-known in the US, consists of vehemently protesting an outcome which one actually desires.

In order to fend off encroachment by the Brexit Party, which threatens to steal votes from the Tories, Johnson has to be seen to deliver the hardest, most macho Brexit possible, i.e. a no-deal Brexit. But as the dire consequences of leaving the EU without a deal become more apparent over time, Johnson also needs to be able to shift blame to the EU and to purported British “collaborators.”

Indeed, even before the recent Bojo “collaborator” comment, ministers appear to have been sent out armed with written talking points instructing them to blame the EU for a no-deal Brexit, and to accuse the EU of failing to negotiate. Hammond pricked Johnson’s ire by pointing out (quite truthfully) that it’s Johnson who torpedoed negotiations by setting the bar impossibly high, with preconditions he knew full well the EU couldn’t meet. Welcome to the latest developments in the endless Tory psychodrama!

The problems associated with adopting no-deal, even as a limited negotiating strategy, I have discussed before. The position of some hardliners is that no-deal must be kept on the table as a tactic. But this is very dangerous due to the strong possibility of sleepwalking to a no-deal Brexit. To understand this danger, we need to recognize a fundamental problem with political bureaucracies. Far from being adroit and able to stop on a dime, they tend to be clumsy and subject to inertia. They’re like huge ships whose course is quite difficult and time-consuming to correct, even where the will exists to do so. You can switch off the engine, but the vessel may continue in the same direction for several miles.

If we look to both the Johnson government and the House of Commons, do we really have faith that they can come together at the eleventh hour and avoid a no-deal Brexit? This seems doubtful, especially since some hardliners are clamouring for no-deal — not as a negotiating tactic or empty threat, but as a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

A no-deal Brexit is like a gun which some people claim the PM only needs for protection. Meanwhile, others are saying, “Yes! Yes! Give us the gun! We want to shoot it off. If we run out of feet, we can always shoot our arms and legs!” This naturally puts non-certifiable MPs in mind of gun control.

So the risk is high, but what is the reward? What crumb might Brussels throw at the last moment to justify the risk of a no-deal Brexit? Caving on the Irish backstop? Is that likely, and would it even be beneficial in the long run?

A cost-benefit analysis suggests that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards, and that the right course for Parliament is to take no-deal off the table through some series of legal maneuvers. No-deal is a weapon too dangerous to be left in the hands of a political faction whose members (many of them) have expressed an ardent desire to use it, and a callous disregard for the consequences, which could include the dissolution of the United Kingdom, with the Scots being the first to jump ship.

Change UK, the Liberal Democrats, and a Labour Plot

The sun shone brightly on The Independent Group, a.k.a. Change UK, when it first coalesced in February, 2019.

It began with tremendous enthusiasm and cohesion among former Labour and Conservative MPs who felt that their respective parties had grown too extreme, and were wracked with internal problems not being addressed by leadership.

Despite what I see as a genuinely promising start, Change UK has thus far not found a solid footing in the short period of its existence. Some members were discouraged by the fledgling party’s poor showing in the European Parliament elections of May 2019, where they failed to win a single seat.

Since then, there’s been an exodus from Change UK, particularly by some high profile members. Heidi Allen resigned to found a looser-knit group called simply The Independents. Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston defected to the Liberal Democrats.

Change UK was right to believe that there’s currently a need for a centrist, Remainer party. Unfortunately, they were out-jockeyed by the Liberal Democrats, who aggressively claimed that territory for themselves. Change UK’s philosophical bent and admirable openness to different ideas coming from members may have (paradoxically) hurt them in an age of strictly-defined boundaries and no-nonsense branding. They may nevertheless continue to play a valuable role

– As a halfway house for MPs who’ve been made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in their prior parties, and need time to sort things out.

– As a platform for dissenting views and straight talk about the ways in which UK politics has broken down.

– As a forum to discuss hybrid solutions which don’t fit neatly into the manifestos of the other parties — a crucible in which to forge good ideas which might then be taken up in due course by those wielding more power.

– As a venue to voice conscientious objections, to shout loudly that the Emperor is stark naked — a soapbox from which to be delightfully curmudgeonlike, defying the mandate to be upbeat, optimistic, and can-do at a time when things seem to have gone to hell in a handbasket.

Much attention has now shifted to the Liberal Democrats and their newly elected leader Jo Swinson because, by and large, the Lib Dems succeeded in branding themselves as the centrist, Remainer party. Some of their methods lacked subtlety, as when newly elected Lib Dem MEPs all showed up wearing bright yellow “BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT” t-shirts.

Whether you give them an ‘A’ for realpolitik or an ‘F’ (for occasional crassness), the Lib Dems have taken center stage as the most viable general (non-regional) alternative to the Tories and Labour. They now figure prominently in potential plans to form a unity government as an interim measure to prevent a no-deal Brexit. As I write, things are in a particular state of flux regarding which parties would cooperate in such a plan, and who might be “PM For A Day” in such a unity government.

Under the UK parliamentary system, only the official opposition party (presently Labour) can force a vote of no confidence which could lead to the formation of a unity government. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s price for calling such a vote appears to be that he be selected as interim PM.

Corbyn is considered a toxic figure by some, and Jo Swinson has suggested that for the plan to achieve maximum inter-party cooperation, the caretaker PM should be someone who enjoys a great deal of respect among MPs across the House, and not someone with ambitions to become Prime Minister in the longer term. She’s floated the names of Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman (known respectively as the Father and Mother of the House), while other names surfacing include Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, and Margaret Beckett — none of whom rankle in the manner of Corbyn.

If you’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Labour as the party of acerbic Sturm und Drang, you’d be astonished to discover it’s also the party of the eminently calm, reasonable (and likeable) Margaret Beckett.

Harman, Cooper, and Beckett are all Labour MPs, and it would be uncharacteristically humble and self-effacing of Corbyn to compromise on any one of these three prospective candidates. Were such a plan successfully implemented, it would also mean that one of them would be the first female Labour Prime Minister, even if in a brief caretaker role.

To be clear, it was Corbyn who put forward this plan in concrete terms. But will he back his own plan with a different “PM For A Day”? The change is needed for these reasons:

1. The Tories plus the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland) have an ultra-slim majority of only 1 in the House of Commons. Several rebel Tories who passionately oppose a no-deal Brexit are said to be close to supporting this type of plan entailing a vote of no confidence followed by a time-limited unity government. Their votes are crucial, but also hard to secure.

2. Those same Tories may see installing Jeremy Corbyn as PM, even for a day, as a bridge too far. Fairly or unfairly, he has come to symbolise everything the Tories hate about Labour, and their hatred of him is both white-hot and totemic.

3. Rebel Tories who dare to support a vote of no confidence take their political lives in their hands. In the present toxic environment, they’re sure to be branded traitors, and linked to Corbyn forever. The propaganda posters more or less print themselves, right down to the Photoshop flourishes making Corbyn look more like a Soviet-style dictator.

4. Again, fairly or unfairly, some people view Corbyn as untrustworthy and megalomaniacal. Already, a government spokesman (Transport Secretary Grant Shapps) has responded officially to the plan by raising public fears: implying that Corbyn might not leave on time, and warning that “he’ll wreck the economy; he’ll destroy people’s jobs, their livelihoods, their savings.” Ironic, considering that Brexit may do the same. Just try going on foreign holiday when the British pound reaches parity with the Mexican peso! (not to speak of the Mexican jumping bean).

5. The same plan — but with a more likeable, less divisive figure than Corbyn as caretaker — would be easier for rebel Tories to swallow. And let’s face it: Though the biggest Corbyn-haters are found among Conservatives, he has his share of detractors among other parties, even Labour. A number of independent MPs are refusing to support him.

6. In opposing the plan with Corbyn as PM, but supporting it with Clarke or Harman, Lib Dem leader Swinson claims she’s certain Tory rebels won’t tolerate Corbyn. This view is reasonable. Moreover, Swinson is not proposing that she herself, nor any Liberal Democrat, be interim PM. She’s shown herself more willing to compromise than Labour, which stubbornly continues to push Corbyn.

7. Tory rebels won’t easily stand up and be counted in support of a plan which would mean their political suicide. If you understand this, you don’t try and sell them Corbyn as PM. That is (as Swinson says) a waste of time and energy. (She’s persuaded me!) The numbers are simply not there.

If Jeremy Corbyn wants to show true leadership in a time of national crisis, he should back the plan he put forward, but with a different interim PM. Besides the reasons already stated, such compromise is necessary due to the rampant factionalism of UK political parties, both large and small — reminiscent of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian where the Judean People’s Front is portrayed as endlessly squabbling with the People’s Front of Judea:

So, the plan cannot succeed without a universally liked reconciliation figure. Even then, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. The plan (which is still somewhat barebones) could face both legal and practical challenges.

Some might consider the Corbyn proposal an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, and prefer to focus on a more arrowlike solution, such as a single piece of targeted legislation which, if enacted, would prevent no-deal from happening on October 31st — perhaps by mandating an extension to Article 50, followed by a second referendum. This is Jo Swinson’s first choice. On the other hand, as long as the present government remains in power, there’s the potential for a no-deal Brexit to keep “respawning.”

The ultimate Rube Goldberg machine:

Getting Tory MPs to go along with installing Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister (even for a day) would be only slightly more difficult! Pick your simile… Like getting cats to march in a parade.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Jeremy, who does look sickly with no flesh on his bones. The man has no flesh! Such a skinny, he should essen ein bissel, not that it should make him fat like a beached whale or anything… Corbyn has been accused of coddling anti-Semites in the Labour party (which was the main reason Luciana Berger left), so I soulfully dedicate this tune to Corbyn:

Jeremy, dahlink, boobala… Eat something! That when you go to visit the queen, they shouldn’t slip you in through the mail slot. And for those still tripping on the Rube Goldberg meme, here’s a parting funny:

Kim Jong-un visits Singapore’s famous Rube Goldberg Hotel

So there it is, the latest skinny!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Boris Johnson’s Tom Bombadil Problem

Beginning with a few Boris Johnson jokes, and morphing into a discussion of his candidacy for PM.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t leave political humour to the pros. But a rich target like Boris invites pros and amateurs alike to have a go, and from both sides of the pond:

One incident which caught my eye was Johnson’s penning of a limerick deriding the President of Turkey. Johnson wrote:

There was a young fellow from Ankara,
Who was a terrific wankerer.
Till he sowed his wild oats, with the help of a goat,
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

President Erdogan’s reply was less well-publicised, perhaps because originally in Turkish. My Turkish is a little rusty (verging on the non-existent), but with the help of a Turkish-English dictionary I was able to cobble together this modest translation:

There once was a Mayor of London,
Who wanked till it gave him a bunion;
He would venture a fling with any young thing,
Be it animal, mineral or onion.

(The accompanying graphic is best left to the reader’s imagination.)

In his present phase as a Brexiter, Johnson famously suggests that since every attempt throughout history to unite Europe has eventually ended in failure, we might as well blow up the current effort. He’s like Ace, the cheerful dynamiter with can-do spirit played by Sophie Aldred in the waning days of Doctor Who Classic. Johnson’s enthusiasm for Brexit is very much the dynamiter’s enthusiasm for blowing up something that’s well nigh irreplaceable. “Oh well, nothing lasts forever,” he muses with schoolboy abandon while lighting the fuse. By his logic, there’s no point in eradicating polio and smallpox, because cancer will get us in the end. And all crockery eventually breaks, so we might as well use it in a game of whiff-whaff.

If we had Mr Wells’s time machine, we might fast forward to an epoch in which the EU no longer exists, true. But today, in spite of its limitations and flaws the EU remains a magnificent Nobel Prize-winning peace project. That peace which it has helped to preserve for over 70 years is its crowning achievement. As long as it remains viable we should do everything possible to preserve it rather than detonate it. To preserve it also means to try and change it for the better from within.

Like other Brexiters, Mr Johnson advances the straw man argument that just because the UK leaves the EU today doesn’t mean war will break out in Europe tomorrow. Of course not. But the creation of the EU was a product of enlightened post World War II thinking in which leaders clearly saw that cooperation in economic matters would lead to greater interdependence between the nations of Europe, and away from the type of hyper-nationalism which leads to warfare. Likewise, over the long arc of history a weaker EU from which the UK is notably absent is an EU with less power to de-escalate conflicts between historical rivals like France and Germany.

Johnson has been described as a man who believes in nothing — a chameleon or weather-vane taking on whatever appearance or direction will benefit his political career. Why then do we like him? Because there’s some merit to the school of thought which says that life is one big absurdist joke. It’s easy to picture Johnson as a character in a Pirandello or Ionesco play, charging rhinoceros-like at an innocent schoolboy for a lark, or penning limericks about the President of Turkey. We need characters like that — just not in high office.

As the colourful Mayor of London Johnson did alright — allegedly with the help of a staff which formed and implemented policy. True, he did order a fleet of buses which doubled as steam baths. In the lower echelons of government, he’s gotten good at blundering his way through, but he’s no tightrope walker or diplomat. As Foreign Secretary he was a disaster whose most serious gaff was making inaccurate remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual citizen of Iran and the UK who was arrested while visiting family in Iran in April 2016. Johnson’s remarks were treated as a publicity coup by the Iranian government, who used them as a further excuse to unjustly imprison her. This highlights the criticism that Johnson is often unprepared, acts irresponsibly, shoots from the hip, and covers up his unpreparedness with bluster.

Then too, Johnson’s checkered history as a journalist is not sufficiently understood within the UK. He spent years on the Brussels circuit figuratively throwing rotten tomatoes at EU officials, writing articles for domestic consumption which arguably helped groom the British public to hate the EU and falsely blame it for all that goes agley in Britain, culminating in the current Brexit insanity (which Johnson helped urge on). If getting out of this Brexit mess will require diplomacy, tightrope-walking, and a reservoir of good will, Johnson is absolutely the wrong man for the job.

This brings me to what I call Johnson’s “Tom Bombadil problem.” Tolkien fans will surely know a pivotal chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring called “The Council of Elrond.” There, folk of many different races and species hold council in order to determine what to do with the Great Ring of Power which would spell doom were it to fall into the hands of Sauron — an evil specter or dictator. One of many options explored is to give the ring to Tom Bombadil, an outlandish, bombastic, likeable, but nutty character who epitomizes Amber Rudd’s famous shade-throwing line about Boris Johnson: “He’s the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”

Incidentally, in the Harvard Lampoon parody Bored of the Rings, Tom Bombadil becomes Tim Benzedrine (a consummate druggie), and his hippyish girlfriend becomes Hashberry, of whom he sings:

O slender as a speeding freak! Spaced-out groovy tripper!
O mush-brained maid whose mind decays with every pill I slip her!
O mind-blown fair farina-head, friend of birds and beetles!
O skinny wraith whose fingernails are hypodermic needles!
O tangled locks and painted bod! Pupils big as eggs!
O flower-maid who never bathes or even shaves her legs!
O softened mind that wanders wherever moon above leads!
O how I dig thee, Hashberry, from nose to sleazy lovebeads!

Anyway, attendees at the Council of Elrond decide against giving the Ring to Tom Bombadil for safekeeping, on the grounds that “he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough.”

Johnson’s ascension to PM may ignite a “Chameleonic War” in the Tory party — a war whose battle lines are already drawn between the old guard of Little Englanders, and more liberal One Nation conservatives. Johnson could end up being a figurehead who runs interference with his public buffoonery, while behind the scenes one faction or another pushes through its favoured policies. But if so, which faction? In his current incarnation of non-beliefs, Johnson is a Brexiter, but occasionally gives out grunts suggesting One Nationism. Some Remainers cling to hopes of a so-called “Nixon in China” scenario in which Johnson, being an arch Brexiter, can turn on a dime and support a second referendum. He is nothing if not unpredictable; still, the latter seems unlikely. Moreover, as PM he may find himself in the same pickle as Mrs May: saddled with a hung parliament, unable to move left or right without fracturing the fragile coalition keeping him in power.

Johnson is a genuinely likeable character — or would be, if only he weren’t in politics, and only he weren’t so ambitious. Deep down, he does believe that life is a joke, and that one might therefore ape any belief for the moment, like a comic actor playing a role. He often appears to be doing a slightly personalized Churchill impression while laughing on the inside. There’s a rumour that in order to ingratiate himself with Tories, he had jowl enlargement surgery. (Okay, so I made that one up!)

He may believe life is a joke, but he will go to Eton, he will scramble to the top of the pile of codswallop, he will fiercely pursue his hunger for the golden chalice (or Ring of Power). That ruthlessness adds a chilling knife-edge to his buffoonery.

Parallels with Donald Trump

Simplistic comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump abound (the mad hair thing being all but irresistible). Each of them may be better at playing Master of Ceremonies on telly than they are at actually governing. Both of them seem unconcerned about details at crucial moments, and more inclined to improvise — often contradicting their own prior statements, as well as experts in the relevant fields. Both are known to lie outright when it suits them; both enjoy the benefits of Teflon with their respective bases; and both are so-called “Marmite figures” — either loved or hated. Both men are examples of charisma as a substitute for leadership, and entertainment value as a substitute for character value; and both seem to suffer from entitlement-itis: a core conviction that they can grab who or what they want simply because they are who they are.

There may be deeper structural similarities in that each is not just a populist, but a particular kind of populist. Both men are elitists who use the techniques of populism to try and put elitist policies over on working class folk who would actually be harmed by such policies.

If and when Boris Johnson takes over the government, it will be crucial to watch what they do, as opposed to what they say. This is always true, but especially so when you have a populist figure trying to sell elitist policies like Brexit.

With his great jowly enthusiasm, Johnson tries to persuade us that the best way to avoid no-deal is to plan for it, and the best way to come closer to Europe is to leave the EU. If politics ever fails him, he has a bright future flogging pyjamas to dead cats.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Brexit Unicorn – Doctor Who vs. Boris Johnson

That pesky Brexit Unicorn has been sighted again! Is it real or a legend? Should we believe in it? Who would think up a crazy notion like this? And in a contest of wits, who will win: Doctor Who or Boris Johnson?

BREAKING: The Bear & Staff changes its name to The Brexit Unicorn:

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‘Twas The Night Before Brexit – GROUP READING! (YouTube)

I really like making things. After all, life can be so routine and boring. But when you make something, you never quite know how it’ll turn out. With any luck, the result may surprise you.

I had written a poem parody called ‘Twas The Night Before Brexit, and encouraged by the kind response from fellow bloggers (thank you!), I decided to turn it into a video:

I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I know technology can be incredibly useful, and I do use it; but I also hate the way our society is becoming so digitised. If you have a problem with a company, good luck reaching a human! And I hate getting calls from sooper friendly chat bots who are apparently programmed to sound like 18-year old girls, so happy they finally reached you, trying to keep you on the line until a real salesperson can take over and scam you with a credit card deal or Microsoft Support nonsense. Is that not the pits?

In the 80s, I was heavily into making music with synthesisers, and even eked out a minor living creating “patches” that other musicians could use. I still remember when synthesisers first emerged as expressive musical instruments with Switched-On-Bach, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and Chick Corea’s blazing synth leads on Where Have I Known You Before. But gradually, synthesisers became a cheap substitute for real musicians, and no low-budget production was complete without a fakey-sounding ensemble — a canned, frozen orchestra playing lifeless, soulless music.

I also used to write pop songs, which was fun even though I never really got anywhere. Back in the 80s I penned this lyric:

Computer bars where
Machines go to dance
Flashing their software
They pivot and prance

Time was humans
Could congregate too
I think of days…
Me and Susie Q would boogaloo

Now it’s early to bed
And likewise early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Won’t someone save us
From this terrible fate?
Calling all aliens,
Please don’t get here too late.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

We’ve heard that Mercury
Has creatures for hire
We’ll give them anything
They need or desire.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Today, I like how some people use technology in a knowing, ironic way — sometimes even to counteract or engage in open warfare with tech’s dehumanizing aspects, going up against the people who send armies of chat bots and sales bots to invade our lives. There’s even one fellow, Roger Anderson, who creates chat bots to interact with telemarketers and waste their time — with hilarious results. His theory, in essence, is that the more time scammers spend interacting with bots, the less time they’ll spend bilking seniors out of their life savings.

So, given how much I hate things that are fakey, the challenge in creating the “Night Before Brexit” video was to try and use technology in a knowing, ironic, and humourous way. Yes, I used synthetic voices, but I tried to make them as expressive as possible. I hope I succeeded, but that’s up to viewers/listeners to judge.

There were innumerable technical challenges. The Scottish lass has oodles of personality, so I gave her some of the best lines. But she tends to speak much faster than the others, so I sometimes had to slow her down by as much as 15%, which does produce artifacts. Still, I was very happy with her performance!

As for the poem itself, it’s only one of many Brexit parodies based on Clark Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St Nick”. Some are quite funny, and some have gone viral. In my version, I wanted to do things a little differently. My two main criticisms of other versions making the rounds are that the authors don’t bother to make the lines scan properly as poetry, and often the language is too steeped in political rhetoric and doesn’t create a proper tableau, or pictures in the mind.

Now, if you write poetry, you might have had the experience that some verses are workmanlike and help establish the setting, but there’s a particular verse you like because of the pictures it creates:

As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.

Call me vain (and I am), but I like that verse so much! I admire Nicola Sturgeon’s rebel stance, and the way the Scottish National Party holds mini-insurrections during debates in the House of Commons (usually beginning with “It’s an insult to Scotland…”). The poem as a whole takes easy shots at right-wingers like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, portraying them as drunken, lecherous, toffee-nosed windbags who exploit Santa’s helpers (who are likeable SNP elves). Not the most nuanced take on UK politics, but in a parody you go for stark contrasts.

As a satirist, I insist on being politically incorrect in a variety of ways, so no need to tally them up. I intend no offence whatsoever, and am simply going for cheap laughs wherever I can get them. The views expressed by the (fictitious) Duchess of Ducks and Duke of North Prickly are not my views, and Santa’s (shall we say unique?) way of dispatching the Johnson is not meant to encourage any enterprising kidnappers at large in the Kingdom.

I’ve always been an odd duck. What interests, amuses, or enlightens me may not have the same effect on others. But I can say with gratitude that the way the video turned out has managed to surprise me.

I’m good at creating things, but not so good at promoting them. So if you find this video a helpful bit of agitprop in the anti-Brexit campaign, please reblog it, tweet a link to it, add it to your Facebook, or otherwise publicise it. The music is from YouTube’s royalty-free Audio Library. Thank you.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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