Do you remember what you were doing when…

LIz Truss was Prime Minister?

Traditional Conservatism

OK, my blog is going political like me. For a bit. Another reflection on the (British) Conservative Party leadership contest, for which the prize is being leader of the Conservative Party, with the Prime Ministership thrown in.

Someone polled Conservative Party members (the electorate in this contest, now we’re down to two candidates) to find out what they would look for in their new leader. There were comments about character and general approach to the job of Prime Minister, mostly seeming very sensible to me and applicable to any party leader who might become PM. Then there was a widespread desire for a “return to traditional conservatism”. What really interested me was how this traditional conservatism was characterised. It seemed to be mainly about reducing the role of the state.

Problem: this isn’t traditional conservatism – not in Britain. Traditional British Conservatism is about:

  • Patriotism (with a bit of narrow nationalism, but mildly expressed)
  • Deference to social superiors and authority (especially royalty) and including the Church of England
  • Valuing and rewarding outstanding and successful people (unless they were outstanding and successful opponents of conservatism)
  • Defending tradition and established institutions (while not opposing gradual change)
  • Admiring and supporting the family
  • Protecting wealth, social distinction and existing advantages generally, while maintaining a balanced, or at least nuanced, approach to economic inequality (poverty was a bad thing, but rich people holding on to wealth was a good thing).

Hostility to the state (government power and scope) was not part of this. Conservative governments did not reverse major extensions of government action by the Liberal governments of 1868-74 and 1905-15. When in 1951 the Conservatives regained power after six years of massive extension of government action under Labour (the NHS, Town and Country Planning, nationalisation of the coal industry and so on) they denationalised the steel industry. Er, that’s it. Although Edward Heath in the late 1960s briefly talked about reducing the scope of the state, the first Conservative leader to make a major commitment to this was Margaret Thatcher, who came to power in 1979. She was serious. But government spending actually increased under her charge.

Making “rolling back the state” fundamental to conservatism isn’t traditional in Britain. It’s a quite recent American import.

Heard in a Pub

Well, my satirical piece about an unnamed British Prime Minister and authoritarian legislation is now a bit dated. Boris Johnson is going, though not for having farted in a police station, and a leadership contest in his Conservative Party is underway. For non-Brits who may not be following this in detail: a leading contender is the recently resigned minister Rishi Sunak, whose super-rich wife avoids UK tax by having an address in a tax haven (“non-domiciled status”).

Heard in a pub last night:

“Well, this Rishi Sunak, his wife’s a non-docile.”

A Satirical Tale

An Historic Day

It was a day in May when the Public Order, Public Decency, Malefactors and Mendacious Criminals Act finally passed into law. Members of the House of Lords shrugged, raised their eyebrows at one another and sank into their robes. Members of the House of Commons sighed the sort of sigh a man exudes when adding the final parsley to an exotic flan, or a woman sighs on completing the transfer of some building rubble from patio to skip, or realising the builders had left the rubble in the alley.

It had been a long and laborious process. Changes had been made along the way, almost all after long debate and verbal wrestle. Clause 37, which banned “maliciously and with intent to cause alarm or distress, farting within the curtilage of a police station” had been amended to exempt police officers from its scope. Similarly, members of the government had been freed from the danger of being charged under clause 16 with “publishing, or conspiring to publish, information liable to undermine respect for the government”. Clause 81 (“adopting a facial expression or bodily posture which, in the opinion of a police officer, demonstrates or is likely to encourage disrespect for the Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer”) was amended to allow for a defence on the grounds of certain medical conditions and its scope was narrowed to withdraw its protection from the Chancellor of the Exchequer while it was extended to cover all members of the royal family. The famous clause 60 (“deliberately, knowingly and with malice aforethought, voting in a manner likely, in the opinion of the Prime Minister or his nominated representative, to undermine effective administration of the public realm”) was clarified and restricted so that it could not be used against members of parliament voting within the bounds of the Palace of Westminster. Intensive lobbying led to clause 9 (“making noises in a group of more than six persons”) being fine-tuned with an exemption for rugby gatherings and shooting parties, as well as for foreign tourists with certain exemptions, though the government had stood firm on applying it to debates in the House of Commons. The maximum penalty for “indecently expressing surprise when stopped and searched by a police officer” (clause 69) had been reduced from 20 years to 18, while representations from all representative bodies of the legal profession led to clause 64 (“thinking, in the opinion of a member of the government, a police officer, prison officer or friend of a cabinet minister, or partner of any of the aforementioned persons, subversive or disgraceful thoughts”) being tightened up so the police officer had to be of the rank of sergeant or above and “partner” was clarified to apply to sexual partners but not business partners, unless they were also sexual partners. Clause 45 (“singing without a licence, or with a licence but in a manner calculated to engender distress”) was amended after lobbying by business interests to cease to apply within freeports. Clause 3 (“behaving in an un-English manner”), after bloodcurdling threats from Holyrood, was allowed to be altered in Scotland to “behaving in an un-Scottish manner” and a derogation was permitted for Wales.

The Prime Minister declared it to be “a great victory for decency and good old British commonsense”. He expressed his thanks to the British people, acting through their elected representatives, in rejecting the self-interested clamour of persons intent on undermining the British way of life, opponents of decency and good government, people who made faces at the royal family, subversive farters and distressing singers, and instead, resolutely choosing high standards in public life.

A week of public order and a complete lack of farting in police stations (except by police officers) ensued. Japanese tourists religiously behaved as if they were English, with most convincing belches.

One major hiccup, however, occurred in Falkirk when a Scot was arrested for behaving in an un-Scottish manner because he was wearing trousers at a wedding. A riotous crowd of Lowlanders stormed the police station and freed him, after which the Scottish Prime Minister announced that no further attempts would be made to enforce this clause in Scotland. The British Prime Minister dismissed this as “a storm in a whisky glass, well, you know, Scots are jolly strange people”. Government advisors were relieved that no serious damage had been done south of the border.

Then, disaster.

The Prime Minister visited a police station in Liverpool which had achieved record numbers of arrests under clauses 9 and 69. A journalist from the Liverpool Echo was present.

The Prime Minister announced,

“Hallo, here comes a jolly good you know what!” and farted.

The Liverpool Echo’s attempt to publish the news led to arrests under clause 16, but the fart was out of the bag. It spread like wildfire. The Chief Constable announced that no action would be taken because “the Prime Minister himself has assured us that no fart took place”, but then Constable Sophie Warlock broke…..cover, telling Hungarian TV “It was gross, you know, disgusting, and he knew it was going to distress me because he smiled at me as he did it.”

An unnamed cabinet minister told a Canadian reporter that the Prime Minister was “out of control”.

Then the forces of law and order fought back. The Prime Minister’s Special Advisor, Damian Prout, revealed that in order to do his bit for the country, the Prime Minister had recently enrolled as a special constable, and so was legally entitled to fart in a police station. The forces of elitism, dissent and disorder were stopped dead in their tracks – for three days. Then a mole in the Home Office revealed to the Financial Times that the Prime Minister’s enrolment as a constable had taken place after the incident in Liverpool, but had been backdated.

The Home Secretary stated she had reluctantly come to the conclusion that it was time for a change.

On 1 June, the 1922 committee met.

Black History—Plessy v. Ferguson

As the cartoon indicates – reversed in 1954.

KG Bethlehem

Plessy v. Ferguson was a landmark 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. The case stemmed from an 1892 incident in which African American train passenger Homer Plessy refused to sit in a car for Black people. Rejecting Plessy’s argument that his constitutional rights were violated, the Supreme Court ruled that a law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between white people and Black people was not unconstitutional. As a result, restrictive Jim Crow legislation and separate public accommodations based on race became commonplace.

After the Compromise of 1877 led to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, Democrats consolidated control of state legislatures throughout the region, effectively marking the end of Reconstruction.
Southern Black people saw the promise of equality under the law embodied by the 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment and 15th Amendment to the Constitution receding…

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The Twain Assertion

Mark Twain famously stated, “rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated”. So in case anyone thinks Covid or anything else might have got me, I’m still here, or at least I think I am or I am in this one of limitless variant worlds perpetually branching off. I’m just not a natural blogger. Things interest me. People interest me. But perpetually telling people what I’ve just done does not interest me. Some bloggers, of course, are very influential, for good or ill, spreading truth or lies, but somehow this way of influencing people leaves me a bit cold whether I’m posting or reading.

OK, that’s a bit of an excuse for having had time to post, but not having done it. I don’t write much poetry now and while I do write some short stories, that doesn’t lend itself to blogging so well.

Recently on LinkedIn I responded to a prompt to record my achievements of the year. That was an interesting question for someone retired, but involved in UK politics to an extend that would probably turn off some of my few readers. So there’s an interesting point: the question is really TWO questions: what have I achieved that I value; and of that list, what can I explain or don’t want to keep private and is likely to interest some other people.

We’re making compromises and calculations like that all the time. Actually, that’s characteristic of politics – and that word has got so dirtied, it’s worth pointing out it’s simply the activity by which people resolve decisions that can’t be left to individual choice, like what to do with that bit of waste ground in the middle of town or where to go for the Christmas party.

I hope to be back after a less long gap!

Not another Covid post?

Recently someone in Essex birdwatching on a walk in his local area was stopped and warned by the police. Another birdwatcher asked the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner to clarify the situation. This was the reply.

“The Health Protection Act regulations that apply to the current lockdown does [sic] not include birdwatching as a reasonable excuse for a person to leave their home. Whilst walking is considered as exercise frequently stopping to view birds would make this activity a recreation as opposed to exercise.

I am aware that angling has been declared an exercise but I am unaware that the same has been done for birdwatching.”

So in other words, sitting still with a fishing rod is exercise, but walking around stopping from time to time to look at birds is not. On the whole, the philosophy seems to be that except for anglers, if you do anything you enjoy while exercising, it’s not exercise, but recreation. Next stop – joggers can’t have music systems plugged in because that’s attending a musical performance?

Enforcement of lockdown is essential to save lives, but I haven’t seen a police officer in a supermarket since the pandemic started and I don’t believe they’re visiting offices. Scientific evidence is that the vast majority of infections occur through sharing air with an infected person indoors.

The main fault, of course, lies with a government that produces vague and loosely-worded legislation; but as with any other law, police can use common sense.

On the plus side, I’ve had my first jab and it was all immaculately and courteously organised.

Obeying the Rules – whatever they are

My last post about Covid was philosophical. This one is political – not that this should be a huge leap.

Apologies to non-UK readers. This is about how the UK is handling the pandemic, and actually just one aspect. Rules about exercise.

The stated rules for our second lockdown say – STAY AT HOME except for a few things, including exercise in a public pen space IN YOUR LOCAL AREA. The local area is not defined. At one point it was “your quarter of your town or city”, which doesn’t help if you’re in a village. If “quarter” is taken literally – 25% – that means you could travel from Greenwich to Bromley, but not from one end of Manningtree or Accrington to the other. Or it may have that other common meaning of “neighbourhood” as in “the Chinese quarter of Newcastle”, which is about four streets and like many urban neighbourhoods, has no public open space to speak of.

It appears that people are being fined by the police in some areas for driving a few miles to exercise when they believed they were within the law. So the process seems to go like this:

1: Government makes a vague law which can’t be enforced without making it specific.

2: Government declines to clarify.

3: Police make their own decision – say, “up to five miles is OK, but no more”.

4: They don’t tell people what the rule is.

5: They catch people breaking it and fine them.

I’ve had good friends in the police; I’ve often in my work days worked well with police officers. One relative was a copper for most of his working life. But this is all just a bit like a police state.

OK, the main priority is to cut Covid deaths. For that, a second lockdown is probably the right measure and maybe should have come sooner. But are these rules helping? During the first lockdown, some police forces applied a rule which never had legal justification, that people could not drive at all to a place to exercise. Given that many people had dogs or restless children, but were scared to drive, they clustered in places on the edge of town. In my coastal town, there is only one. It was crowded. Bad for reducing transmission, surely? Then people realised the no-driving rule had been dropped and they spread out. Much easier to avoid getting too close. Now, though, people don’t know if even a four-mile journey might get them in trouble. Result: they’re clustering together again.

Stopping people going even a few miles would make sense if the virus was localised in a few pockets, but it isn’t and won’t be. That might have worked right at the start – not now.

I can be persuaded. But I’ve yet to hear why driving ten miles to exercise where few people are is more dangerous than driving one mile to where lots of people are.

The New World

As we approach a year locked into a pandemic, and as I give thanks for the safety of those closest to me, I think about how the changed world has affected me and what I can learn from my reactions.

As I said in my last post, I haven’t felt disoriented or puzzled or even helpless. An unwanted situation has happened, as they do, and I am not powerless because I can take sensible precautions by choice, take calculated small risks by choice when they seem worthwhile, and although my government is unlikely to listen to me or mine, I can help expose its mistakes and dishonesties. Compared to the experience of a world war starting, with your country a combatant, this dislocation is quite small. Moreover, it’s never seemed to me the most important thing happening – that’s the climate emergency and our inadequate response.

There are things I miss a lot: drinking, chatting and just watching the world go by in the pub (a bottle of beer at home is not a complete substitute, not by a long chalk); cancelled holidays; some birding day trips when (as now) lockdown is intense. There are even gains: the cats and I share one another’s company more, which suits us all. Most of these things can be replaced. What can’t – and what effect does it have?

I’m still in regular contact with friends, political allies and relatives. But we don’t meet face to face. That matters after a while, particularly in the political field. Meetings happen by Zoom. The business gets done, but all the informal contact, the taking someone aside after the meeting, the chat, much of which is also useful to the campaigning effort, is lost. You learn less about the people you’re working with. Human experience is narrowed.

I’ve got out birdwatching and on long walks as much as before, even if that involved a little rebellion in the first lockdown when police were making up the rules including some very silly ones. The birding is more local, but that’s OK. For a long time, though, out of caution and because other people were abstaining, I wasn’t delivering leaflets. Can you believe how glad I was when I felt I could go back to that? Why was this? I was doing something useful, yes, but also, I was getting out, seeing different sights, going to different places. The meetings, too: I might dislike driving to a meeting in heavy rain after dark, but it meant being in different places. Not being in different places so much, however much I visited places on the net, had a bigger effect than I expected and eventually, I did feel, not quite depressed, but unfulfilled, unchallenged.

So what does that mean for people who for reasons of health or anything else, in or out of pandemic, can’t get out? How much does that do to fuel mental decline?


People say to me, “We’re living in strange times”. True, but on the whole, I expect times to be strange. I’ve got a History degree. I read Science Fiction. In both, strange things happen. I’ve also got a lively interest in both emergency planning, and how people react in a crisis. The assumption that if something has never happened in your experience, it won’t happen, is horribly common and leads to a lot of bad decisions.

I’m not sure if that’s why I’ve been a bit scared, and bothered by things I want to do but can’t, but not disturbed or disoriented by the crisis. Of course, it makes a big difference that no-one I know has been hospitalised. But if they were, disoriented would be the last thing I’d be.

I get on with political planning tasks, with writing, with local birdwatching while maintaining social distance. I’m phoning people and getting phone calls. The cats are happy with things. I’m reading more – “New Scientist” and some books. I’m learning Italian – something I’d started as a project before lockdown, but I have more time for now.

Our government’s response is all over the place, but then I’d expect that. “New Scientist” mentions Chinese research that places of work were 100 times more dangerous than public transport; so the government makes face coverings on public transport compulsory and not at work. I did my big food shopping two days ago (now at 9 to 10 day intervals to reduce risk). None of the staff busying around (often coming close to customers) were wearing face-masks, though the checkout-people were.

OK, I’m not surprised – just disappointed.