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US Primaries – let he who is without sin cast the first vote

On the Day of Judgement, God scours the web, checks out the social media and makes His decision on who goes to heaven or hell.

This also appears to be the prerogative of voters, except that each of us is expected to function as the judge, and determine the relative weight of the sins against the good deeds that will send the candidate to heaven.

One of the less pleasant aspects of modern elections is the way in which the closer you get to the election itself, the more intense the stream of calumny against the front-runners becomes. It’s as if opponents of the candidates drip-feed the negative stuff over the campaign, and save the really juicy morsels of poisoned meat until the end, at which point the choice is severely limited. The timing of the nasties often or not determines the result of the election.

Even in the case of Donald Trump, whose transgressions have been manifest more or less from the moment he took office, you get the sense that those who wish to overthrow him still have something in reserve. Will it be further compelling evidence of corruption, revelations from his tax returns, damning emails or some other yet-to-be revealed candidacy killer?

The sad aspect of the battle for Democratic nomination is that the different factions within the party are doing as effective a job as Trump in demolishing the prospects of the leading candidates. Biden’s senile, Bernie’s a socialist who hasn’t changed his views since he extolled the Soviet Union. Buttigeig is either gay, therefore unelectable, or isn’t gay enough, which is unacceptable. Warren will destroy Wall Street. Bloomberg is an oligarch turncoat who hates women and presided over an oppressive stop and search regime while Mayor of New York. Klobuchar bullies her staff. And that’s just scratching the surface.

What a bunch of irredeemable shits, it would seem! And this comes from their own side. Yes, I know this is a time-honoured ritual in American politics, in which the acts of those who have governed are judged not by the standards that applied when they carried them out, but by the often very different attitudes of today. Likewise those who were legislators are reminded of every vote they cast thirty years ago that might not fit the present realities. Every pecadillo, misspeak and dissonant word is brought to light again, never to be forgiven.

Then, when the candidate is chosen, the furies who have persecuted them and all those who have fallen by the wayside turn into cheer leaders who do their darndest to persuade the electorate to ignore the heinous flaws they had previously exposed.

Nowhere is this excoriation more evident than on Twitter. You would have to search very hard to find anyone prepared to extol Bloomberg’s achievements, either as a businessman or a politician. The virtues of other candidates as decent human beings whose qualities are the very opposite to those of Trump rarely get an airing. So it’s left to the candidates themselves to blow their own trumpets, only to be howled down by the hounds of hell.

Way before the age of Twitter, I used to wonder how the whole process ends up throwing up halfway decent leaders. It seems designed to identify the most inoffensive mediocrities, and then slather them with money from the wealthy in search of influence – in return for an unknown quid pro quo.

That of course was before King Donald showed up and broke the rules. But the Democrats seem not to have grasped what those rules are, which is to say anything, break any eggs and hurt any feelings in order to get elected. They will say that the number one priority is to defeat Trump, and then they scuttle off to spread poison about those best placed to do so. Whoever makes it to the main contest will be hobbled before they even start.

I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that the only way any of the embattled survivors of the race to nomination will defeat Trump will be through an implosion on his part – perhaps some further revelation about his murky past or present, or his failure to deal with a catastrophe that will repel all but his most fanatical supporters.

I don’t wish catastrophe on anyone, but if one serves to end the grotesque career of the current President, then at least there will be a silver lining.

I’m not just talking about the US primaries, by the way. In my country we have a Labour Party leadership election in which supporters of the various factions are using exactly the same tactics to denigrate the candidates – all on Twitter of course. Like Trump in America, Boris Johnson must be looking on with glee.

In these dark days for democracy, a little kindness might go a long way.

Postcard from Phuket – Russia Town

Not much to report on the coronavirus front in Thailand, except the apparent absence of it. We moved on from Bali to a rather nice hotel on Karon Beach, which is close to Patong, where the ladyboys and their gawpers assemble in pubs and bars.

The apparent absence of the virus might be related by the almost total absence of Chinese visitors, who normally come here in their droves. I expected to find the area relatively quiet for that reason. Not so. The place is packed with people, most of whom you could describe as westerners, out for dinner and mingling happily in the markets. Hardly a face mask in evidence.

What took me by surprise was that at least two out of every three groups of people we passed by were speaking Russian. My suspicions that we were in a Russian town were confirmed by the charming Maria, a Muscovite who works in customer services at the hotel. She told me that the largest nationality group at the hotel is Russian, followed by Kazakhs, and then by Australians. We Brits are a small minority, along with a smattering of French, Danes and Germans.

So no problem with towels on empty sun loungers, you might think. Not so. Either the Germans have been maligned for all these years, or the Russians have caught up with them. The hotel has a rule that staff are entitled to remove towels that have been left on unoccupied loungers for more than two hours. Fine in principle, but would you risk the wrath of a chap straight out of a Bond movie whose last job was probably annexing Crimea?

Speaking of Bond movies, and their portrayal of Russians – usually as hitmen, oligarchs, SMERSH operatives and thugs who get wiped out in large numbers by our James – reminds me of the extent to which Hollywood has demonized them over the years. How many movies or TV series have you seen that portray Russians in a sympathetic light? I can think of a few. Gorky Park, Enemy at the Gates, Dr Zhivago, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Hunt for Red October and Chernobyl – even though the latter was set in Soviet Ukraine – come to mind.

But for every movie that humanises them, there must be at least two that portray them as ruthless spies, ideological automata, criminal masterminds and assassins. And when real Russians conform to the fictional stereotype by showing up in England with polonium and Novichok to wipe out exiled enemies of the state, it’s easy to understand why people in the west might get a little nervous when they come across large numbers of ordinary Russians minding their own business in a holiday resort town in Thailand.

That’s especially the case, when they bear a distinct resemblance to the GRU operatives who poisoned Sergei Skripal or when they stride down the street with impassive faces and barrel chests doing their best impressions of an oligarch’s bodyguard. Or when husbands who are not blessed in the looks department show up with their impossibly beautiful wives who sport perfect bodies and plumped-up lips that have clearly benefited from Thailand’s cosmetic surgery expertise.

We do them an injustice, just as decades of movie portrayals of Arabs as murderous terrorists likewise condition us to be afraid of dark-skinned men with long beards.

To see the streets thronged with Russians of all shapes and sizes also reminds me of how little I know of them and their country. If you believe western news reports describing Russia as a country in almost constant economic crisis, whose population is declining and where the average life expectancy is way below that of their European neighbours, you wonder how it is that so many have the means to holiday in Thailand.

Can they all be from the large cities where reasonable livings are to be had and something approximating a middle class has sprung up? Is so, why do we hear only of poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, poor healthcare and social decay in small towns across the hinterland that have missed out on the prosperity to be had in Moscow, St Petersburg and the like?

The problem, I suspect, is our age-old tendency to associate the character of a people with the image projected by its leader of the time. Unfortunately, as far as the West is concerned, Russian leaders haven’t cultivated the greatest PR over the years, though I did have a soft spot for Boris Yeltsin and his liking for a good time.

In this respect we are guilty of double standards. Would we write off every American as a demented Trumpite? Not until after the next election, possibly. As for Britain, my own country, there are still a few people who would react with horror at the thought that the world sees us as slaves of the mendacious chancer running our government.

Perhaps to see though the Russian stereotype we need to look beyond the stuff we’re fed in the West. I’m not saying that I’m planning to replace the BBC with Russia Today as my news medium of choice. But I really would prefer to find things to love about a country rather than aspects to hate.

So we need more music, art, literature, in fact a whole range of Russian culture to be more visible to the West without ideological filters. Perhaps we need some enterprising Russian film makers to come up with a few Russki Noir TV series that might beguile us in the same way as the Scandi stuff has.

As things stand, the more we ignore a people’s diversity and humanity, the easier it is to think of them as an enemy.

Back in coronaland, COVID-19, as we are now to call the virus, has yet to get a grip on the beautiful island of Phuket, so thus far our facemasks have remained unused. Lets hope that the Big Buddha, who sits on a hill not far from here, will keep everyone safe.

Sinn Fein rising – thoughts from a Brit

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by anything that happens in politics these days. At least not after the Brexit referendum, the malarkeys of Trump, the election of Britain’s most extreme government in living memory, the resurgence in anti-Semitism under the unlikely umbrella of the Labour Party and the slew of governments with an authoritarian bent in all manner of countries where you would least expect to see them.

But I have to admit that the voters of Ireland opting in unprecedented numbers for Sinn Fein is right up there. I do understand the desire of young people both sides of the Irish border for a united Ireland. And yes, I accept that we should regard the party in the North as a political movement that since 1998 has opted for the ballot box over the gun, and through a political agreement is deemed to be respectable enough to share power with the Democratic Unionists.

And yet I can’t forget that not so long ago they were the “political wing” of a movement that also included battalions of bombers and gunmen intent on killing their way to their desired political end. I also can’t forget how, when I married my beloved wife in a southern Irish town, I was assured by all and sundry that such atrocities as were still going on in the north had no place and minimal support in the south.

I remember well the little game played by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who claimed distance from the IRA, while most of the people with an ounce of insight into the affairs of the province knew well that they deeply involved.

Though I was no more than a bystander through the Troubles, I know people who were shot at by the IRA, while Adams and McGuinness, as leaders of Sinn Fein, blithely maintained that they “didn’t speak” for them.

So under the Good Friday Agreement, it was determined that all sides should let bygones be bygones. The murderers on both sides of the sectarian divide put away their weapons. The thousands of the bereaved – the families of the IRA and its various factions, of the loyalist paramilitaries, of the police and soldiers and of the innocent bystanders – were left to mourn their dead.

I, and everyone else who lived through the bombings and the assassinations, am therefore expected to say that that was then, and this is now. Just as black South Africans, oppressed for decades, were expected to forgive their oppressors when the wall of apartheid finally came down.

So be it. And I accept that there are many voters in Ireland who don’t care about old allegiances and have no sectarian beliefs. They would like to see a united Ireland, and so, actually, would I. Whether those voters are in a majority, and whether those who come from the Unionist tradition are insistent enough to persuade their parents and grandparents to set aside their fears of marginalisation, remains to be seen.

Certainly I can forgive, yet I can’t escape the feeling of distaste at the rise of Sinn Fein, whose name I associate with cruelty and mayhem, now standing on the brink of power. And although there are people I know who most likely will have voted for them, in the interests of friendship I will not be reminding them of the violence their political forebears inflicted on my forebears.

I will also not accept the silver-tongued whataboutery of the IRA’s apologists in my country. I know about Cromwell, the plantations, the famine, the Easter Rising, the Black and Tans, the suppression of civil rights and all the other malfeasance that fuelled the violence of the most recent Troubles. Many wrongs do not make a right.

The innocents who died in Omagh, Belfast, Warrington, Birmingham and countless other locations bore no responsibility for the misdeeds of the past. And in case we think that the modern Sinn Fein is long divorced by the passage of time from the viciousness of their former brothers-in-arms, we should remember that as late as in 2005, Mitchel McLaughlin, a former Sinn Fein speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, felt the need to comment that the execution of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten suspected of being a British Army informer, who was kidnapped, shot in the head and buried by a beach like an unbaptised child laid to rest in a cillín, was not a crime.

McConville was killed in 1972. Her body was not discovered until 2003, four years after the IRA provided information as to her whereabouts. No evidence was ever produced of her informing activities.

So to the good people of Ireland, as always I wish you the best. It’s your country, your politics and it’s not for me to say whether or not you’ve done the right thing. And to Sinn Fein, good luck, govern well if you get the chance, and do the right thing. But for what it’s worth, don’t expect me to cheer you on. I can’t. You are tainted, and I suspect ever will be in the minds of my generation.

The future of the BBC – now is not the time to think the unthinkable

If there was a national emergency in the US, where would you go to get a balanced assessment of the situation, advice and guidance? The sanctimonious bigots on Fox News, or the unpatriotic pinkos at MSNBC?

In the UK, you would probably go to the BBC.

Or maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe you would endlessly scour the web to to find someone who might tell you there isn’t an emergency at all. That in fact that the whole situation is a left-wing, right-wing, socialist, fascist, Russian, Chinese, American, Muslim, Jewish, Christian fabrication – you choose.

Sometimes I can’t stand the BBC, with its condescending efforts to appeal to my age group or any other age group for that matter. In an age of precise social targeting, relying on the talents of feckless commissioning editors from Islington who think they know what appeals to me seems to be the equivalent of wartime area bombing. Sometimes I feel that it treats me like a giant sloth waiting for my next bunch of leaves from the zoo keeper.

I can’t stand the way it juxtaposes the views of people like Nigel Farage with those who have actual experience of government, thus giving him a legitimacy he doesn’t deserve. How in the interests of balance it presents the views of crackpots and fools alongside those of people who know what they’re talking about.

And yet if I and others around me were in mortal peril, I would come home to mother, confident that the BBC wouldn’t parrot the government line that Dr Li Wenliang was a dangerous subversive.

How many other countries have anything like the BBC? A public broadcaster immune from the influence of owners with their own agendas to pursue. Admittedly it’s an imperfect entity under constant criticism for political bias one way or another. And now it’s under existential threat from a government that seems determined to “sort it out”.

The licence fee model is particularly under scrutiny. At £154 per annum it compares unfavourably with subscriptions to Sky, Netflix, Amazon and other “rivals”. In an era that understands the price of everything and the value of nothing, this factor makes the BBC particularly vulnerable.

But what of that value? For all its flaws the BBC is a vast repository of knowledge, handed down through generations of employees. It is also a vast repository of content, a finite resource that it licences to other broadcasters, but that would quickly become a dusty archive unless constantly replenished.

It’s a provider of minority content  – in Scots Gaelic and Welsh, for example, and regional content – that could be replicated by the private sector, but at the risk that the provider will be like the Sinclair Broadcast Group in the US, a media company with a pronounced ideological bent. If content in minority national languages were so much at a premium, we should ask why the the only broadcaster with channels in those languages is the BBC.

Then there are the advertisers. How often do they dictate the content that commercial providers create? Do we really want to sacrifice the only major broadcaster that is relatively free from those arbiters of taste, opinion and morals over which we have no control?

And what of values? Like most large corporations, the BBC has a mission statement and a set of values that it expects its employees to share.

Let’s look at the mission first. How many other broadcasters claim a mission to “act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain”? Or more to the point, how many that might subscribe to such a mission actually deliver the impartiality, quality and distinctive bits? As for acting in the public interest, do Netflix, Sky and Amazon meet that criterion? No, they act in the interest of their shareholders.

Now for the values:

  • Trust is the foundation of the BBC. We’re independent, impartial and honest
  • We put audiences at the heart of everything we do
  • We respect each other and celebrate our diversity
  • We take pride in delivering quality and value for money
  • Creativity is the lifeblood of our organisation
  • We’re one BBC. Great things happen when we work together

The thing about values is that they exist on two levels. First, in the imagination of those who formulate them. They represent a wish, and not necessarily reality. Second, in the attitudes and behaviour of the employer and its employees. For them, corporate values are expectations placed on their behaviour and attitudes, which again might not correspond to personal reality.

In the case of the BBC, it has thousands of employees, many of them highly skilled with their own ideas that might be at variance with the corporate values. Just as the US senate voted to acquit Donald Trump, apparently for reasons of self-preservation and in contradiction of their oaths of impartiality, the BBC undoubtedly has people whose dominant purpose is to hang on to their jobs. They create inertia, fear of stepping out of line and unwillingness to take creative risks.

Does this organisation of imperfect human beings reflect its stated values?

Everyone will have an opinion on that, from people who love David Attenborough to those who believe that it swallowed the Brexit bullshit. From people who loathe reality TV to those who love its costume dramas.

If an opinion poll asked people to rate its performance against its values, it would probably score between 5 or 7 on each count. Not bad, but not stellar.

But consider what we would lose if the BBC was ripped apart and sold to the highest bidder. We would lose one of the few large organisations that can still truly be said to be British. No foreign corporation owns it and dictates its content and mode of operation. It is not independent in the sense that it’s immune to interference by the government of the day. But at least it has the buffer of an independent governing board that can fight its corner if need be.

The other organisation is the National Health Service, which is also under siege by ideologues who believe that any organisation under public ownership is inherently wasteful and inefficient. The same accusations are made against the BBC.

It may be that the BBC will eventually die through lack of interest, as each successive generation finds its own way to access content, mostly online. Yet it’s ironic that Brexit succeeded largely because the oldest generation voted for it, whereas it’s precisely those people who would find, if the BBC no longer existed, that they’d lost a faithful friend that sustained, entertained and educated them through thick and thin. A friend that was still there for them while all their other friends had died off.

That’s not a reason to save a failing organisation. But is the BBC a failure, except in the sense that it’s managed to piss off a bunch of politicians whose time has come? For all its flaws, it seems to me to be pretty robust. It does reach a wide audience even if its content doesn’t please everyone, including me from time to time. If it does need to be broken up for reasons above my pay grade, then there is one area that must remain under public ownership. That’s news and current affairs. Now more than ever we need a source of information devoid of lies and political manipulation. The BBC’s journalists don’t always meet that standard, but I’m convinced that they genuinely try their best. Would you say the same of Russia Today, Fox News or Sky?

Aside from any other consideration, the BBC’s content is sold all over the world. As we witness Britain’s political power ebbing away, we should never forget or undervalue the soft power that our premier broadcaster projects beyond our borders. If we have any doubt about this, we should consider the influence – often translated into economic advantage – that American entertainment has had on our culture over the past seventy years.

My message to the government is by all means seek to reform the BBC – every organisation needs a shake-up from time to time. But just because you can, don’t start thinking the unthinkable, because in this case the unthinkable might bring consequences that we deeply regret. We could rejoin the European Union, but we could never put such a complex ecosystem as the BBC together again once we’ve dismantled it.

Postcard from Bali – Corona Diaries Part 2 (still alive)

I guess it’s boring to say that neither I nor my wife have succumbed to the coronavirus, at least as far as we know. So as yet I’m unable to entertain you with a blow by blow account of the high fever and dry cough that apparently precedes full-blown pneumonia.

The same seems to apply to the entire population of Bali. If that’s true, it’s good news for Bali, at least on the basis that the islanders have no need to swing into the drastic action some neighbouring countries have adopted.

Indonesia, of which Bali is a part, has, like Australia, designated a quarantine island. A plane-load of evacuees from mainland China has been taken there. Also, in common with a number of other countries, Indonesia has now banned flights to and from China. This means that 5,000 Chinese nationals still in Bali have nowhere to go. A number of these unfortunate people are on short-term visas that will soon expire. The Bali government has indicated that it will extend their visas if need be.

What I find hard to understand is why flights to China, even if they return empty, are being banned. For the airlines there is obviously the economic cost of flying empty aircraft, but surely the government could compensate them in some way. They will also be rightly concerned about the potential health hazard for crews. I’m not sure there’s an answer to that one beyond the usual infection avoidance tactics.

So the 5,000 Chinese visitors face an extended stay. That will be tough for them. Stranded on a beautiful island, unable to return to work or join their fellow citizens in purdah. Though loss of earnings will obviously be an issue, I think I know how most will feel about this, especially as they are in a place in which the health services have not yet been stretched to the limit. If they do get sick, the chances are that they will get better treatment than in the homeland, unless, of course the virus spreads rapidly to the local population.

In my position of relative ignorance, scouring the web for updates on the spread of the virus, other questions occur.

If China has tens of thousands of infections, presumably a number of people have now got better. The standard time for recovery is said to be seven days. So are these people being kept in isolation, rather than employed to support those who have not been infected? If so, why? You would have thought that those who have been infected and have now recovered will be immune. So can they not return to work or help their neighbours by buying food for them or accompanying the sick to hospital? I’m surprised that we haven’t’ heard these kind of good news stories in the Chinese media. It could be, I guess, that the doctors can’t be sure when a person is no longer infectious, or even that they can’t be sure whether a recovered patient is actually immune. The latter would be very bad news.

Then there’s the poor folk who are stranded on cruise liners. They face up to two weeks trapped in their cabins while the port authorities wait to see if they develop symptoms. What are these folks supposed to do? How do they get fed and watered? How do they entertain themselves stuck in a small space 24/7? I imagine a few prisoners will be able to advise them on this, but even they get to spend some time every day in an exercise yard. I imagine that a diet of videos and the opportunity for regular recreational sex with be enough for some people. But I fear that the rest will develop a severe case of cabin fever. Will there be breakouts, mass riots and nervous breakdowns? I hate to think.

Now for a subject only tangentially related to the coronavirus. According to the UK’s Evening Standard (with apologies for the reporter’s linguistic difficulties):

The US is planning on limiting the kinds of animals that airlines must allow on board free of charge.

Proposals to restrict air travel to guide dogs has been put forward by the Department of Transportation.

The proposal, which is subject to public comment, was put forward following concerns that passengers were falsely claiming pets as “service animals”.

If approved it would mean that so-called “emotional support animals” would no longer have the same rights as canines helping those with disabilities.

The Standard goes on to say that:

US airlines welcomed the plans and said an increase in animal travellers had led to complaints.

In the past, animals passengers have tried to bring into the cabin include peacocks, squirrels and turkeys.

The US is planning on limiting the kinds of animals that airlines must allow on board free of charge.

Proposals to restrict air travel to guide dogs has been put forward by the Department of Transportation.

The proposal, which is subject to public comment, was put forward following concerns that passengers were falsely claiming pets as “service animals”.

If approved it would mean that so-called “emotional support animals” would no longer have the same rights as canines helping those with disabilities.

US airlines welcomed the plans and said an increase in animal travellers had led to complaints.

In the past, animals passengers have tried to bring into the cabin include peacocks, squirrels and turkeys.

In 2018, Delta said some passengers had tried to board with “comfort turkeys, gliding possums, snakes” and spiders.

My wife tells me that she read elsewhere that passengers have tried to board with pigs and miniature ponies.

I am aghast. Aside from the idea that some passengers are so terrified of flying that they seek to rope innocent animals into the experience, who, I wonder, finds snakes and spiders emotionally comforting? Dogs I can just about understand, since they stare lovingly into their owners’ eyes, though presumably with a quizzical look that could be interpreted as meaning “what on earth are you doing bringing me into this hellhole?”

As for peacocks, what is to prevent one from raising its magnificent tail and spraying the occupants of the row behind with an explosion of excrement?

Which brings me to the tangential connection with the coronavirus. What if that cute little piggie sitting on the next seat has swine fever? Or if the comfort turkey has bird flu or salmonella?

There’s a certain hypocrisy among people who think it’s OK to bring animals onto a plane but castigate the Chinese for their live food markets.

I do worry about my American cousins sometimes. To what level of emotional fragility are they descending? I doubt if their grandparents, who parachuted into Normandy on D-Day were allowed comfort animals. And besides, haven’t they got the biggest comfort animal on the planet, the piggy-eyed cartoon character who is on every second video assuring them how great their country is?

Fortunately, we in Britain have not yet succumbed to this trend. You can’t fly from Heathrow to the US with a lovable ferret or a cuddly little scorpion, thank goodness. Our rule may soon be an irrelevance, though, because the UK government is going around upsetting so many people beyond our shores that before long nobody will welcome us and there will be no call for flights out of the UK except by people who can’t wait to get out of there.

Back in Bali, we’re not going too far from our hotel. It seems sensible to avoid crowds, so no malls, temples or busy streets. That leaves us plenty of scope to read – I always bring a stack of books – swim endless lengths in the pool and try to determine the origin of the many nationalities we encounter beyond coughing distance. Oh, and there are some nice restaurants out on the beach beyond us.

We’ve done plenty of trips around Bali on previous visits, so our lack of adventurousness is no loss, and a small concession to paranoia.

Yet more when I have it.

An age of political mediocrity

Gun rally in the Kentucky state capitol

I don’t comment much on US politics these days, apart from the occasional poke at Donald Trump. Since we in Britain have a government that seems determined to emulate the populist tactics of Trump and his gang, we have plenty of dodgy politics to preoccupy us at home.

But I can’t help sharing a few thoughts about the impeachment process, which is coming to an entirely predictable conclusion.

The Senate is about to acquit Donald Trump. An increasingly popular argument among republican senators is that yes, Trump did wrong, but not wrong enough to be removed from office and banned from standing again this year.

I can at least understand the argument. If Franklin D Roosevelt had committed an act of a similar nature in 1943, one year away from a wartime election, I very much doubt that the Senate would have impeached or removed him. They would have cited the danger of changing presidents during a life-or-death struggle against Japan and Nazi Germany.

Nor would they have removed Eisenhower, a man whose wartime record and behaviour as president, though not wholly beyond reproach, for a lapse from his usual high standard of behaviour.

Only misbehaviour on a grand scale, such as aiding an enemy (Japan, in Roosevelt’s case) or sharing state secrets with a geopolitical rival (the Soviet Union, in Eisenhower’s case), would most likely have resulted in impeachment.

The chances are that anything on the scale of Trump’s offense would have been covered up –  something far easier to do when there was only print media, radio and TV to deal with, and a powerful figure such as J Edgar Hoover at the FBI ready to snuff out any investigation.

The current situation, I would suggest, is entirely different. Trump’s Ukraine behaviour is the tip of an iceberg. The man is a liar, a cheat, a fraudster and a grossly incompetent leader. The one obvious reason why the Senate will acquit him is that for all his manifest faults, he has taken a grip over a substantial portion of the US electorate. His base doesn’t care about his lies or the long-term implications of his policies. They buy into the MAGA ethos and the growth of their 401k pension funds.

A substantial number of senators, I suspect, are well aware of the consequences of Trump’s presidency – spiralling debt, a dangerous level of economic inequality and impulsive decision-making that leads to unknowable consequences. But they hold their noses and vote for him because they are frightened of his power to influence the voters in their states and persuade the wealthy not to fund their election campaigns. In other words, their jobs are more important than the national interest. Or at least they persuade themselves that their tribe’s interests are the same as those of the nation.

There is, I suspect, another reason why they are unwilling to defy Trump by removing him. It’s not just fear of loss of office. They fear for their lives.

They see images of armed gunmen parading through the Kentucky state capitol. They will know all about the armed militia that have formed across the country. They are aware that Trump supporters have threatened civil war if Trump is removed. Who is to say that an angry gunman will not try and take revenge on the “traitors” by shooting them down?

And how many of them, unbeknown to the average American, have, like British MPs over the past four years, been on the receiving end of death threats? I imagine they are afraid of similar reactions from extremists if Trump loses the next election.

Any surprise at this reality comes from our expectation that politicians should act out of high principle and, if necessary, self-sacrifice, rather than, like the rest of us, as fallible human beings, with hopes, fears and a strong sense of self-preservation.

Although the UK looks increasingly like the US in terms of polarisation and the susceptibility of the electorate to easily digested but deceptive messages, we should be profoundly grateful that we are not intimidated by politically-motivated gangs of armed men dressed like soldiers.

I’m currently reading Chastise, by Max Hastings, an account of the Dambuster raids in the Second World War. Most of the crews who carried out that raid were aged between 20 and 25 years old. Many didn’t come back. Their courage was matched by that of many thousands of fellow-combatants of a similar age.

These days few of us are called upon to show physical or moral courage. On both sides of the Atlantic heroes are often to be found in the armed forces, the police and the fire services. Occasionally ordinary members of the public also individuals act on their own initiative in extraordinary ways to defend their fellow citizens.

Sadly, the courage of both kinds that was in abundance 75 years ago is lacking among our leaders, who seem all to willing to succumb to the path of least resistance.

In case I’m accused of being partisan, let me say that with a few honourable exceptions I haven’t seen much evidence of moral courage on any side of the political divide in either country.

Back in the Second World War, the Royal Air Force would cruelly describe airmen traumatised by months of incessant sorties as having “low moral fibre”. Our political leaders don’t have the excuse of flying over enemy territory, never certain that they would come back in one piece. Those who have military experience would be well aware of what that feels like. But the rest face challenges infinitely less perilous than those facing the bomber pilots, yet still fold under pressure.

It’s a symptom of the age, and I’m not sure there’s much we can do about it apart from electing other leaders. Are those we choose likely to be better than those they replace? Again, I’m not sure.

Perhaps we have to come to terms with the possibility that we live in an era of political mediocrity. Let’s hope that in the near future, one or two people will stand up and prove me wrong.

Postcard from Bali – corona diaries

Prayers for Bali’s safety ( Rosidin)

Since I last posted, the World Health Organisation has decreed that the coronavirus outbreak is a global emergency. Yep, I’d agree with that, but thus far Bali, where we’re staying, has reported no cases, suspected or confirmed.

That might change, especially as a couple of nights ago a guy in the next room exploded into a coughing and sneezing fit on his balcony. We immediately went into calculation mode. How far does a sneeze reach? Would the potentially noxious vapours reach our balcony? How long do they hang around in the air before subsiding to the vegetation below? Would the towels we hung out to dry be impregnated? What about the furniture?

It’s probably relevant – at the risk of being accused of racism – to point out that the guy in question “looked Chinese”. So here’s a question. Someone who “looks Chinese” starts sneezing violently within metres of your space. Do you speak to him to express concern? Do you speak to the hotel to let them know that one of their guests is displaying alarming symptoms, of what you know not? Or do you do nothing, because you don’t want to appear racist?

We chose option 2. I felt like a snitch – a bit like one of those informers in authoritarian countries who turn in their neighbours for some imaginary offence. But in a country desperate to keep the coronavirus at bay, respiratory problems are not an offence. They’re a potential health hazard.

To their credit, the hotel did take action. They spoke to him and asked him to wear a face mask. They offered to move us to another room, which we have not yet decided to do. It turns out that the person in question is indeed Chinese. He is apparently a Hong Kong resident. He speaks no English, so the hotel is bringing an interpreter to speak to him in some detail. So if I’d spoken to him, it would have been in sign language, which might have resulted in unintended offence.

Was I racist in suspecting that the person was from China? You decide.

Yesterday my wife and I had cause for a different concern. I was sitting on the balcony and she was inside on the bed. Suddenly my armchair appeared to be moving from side to side. Thinking my eustachian tubes were having an off day, I didn’t stand up screaming in panic. But then my wife called out to tell me that the bed was moving. Only slightly, but noticeably. Oh shit, we thought. Earthquake! Worse still, tsunami.

Bali is in an earthquake zone, so such an event was not impossible. But nobody else was running around in a panic, no masonry was flying around, so we assumed that we’d felt a minor tremor. We were also comforted by the fact that the area outside our room was a designated tsunami assembly area.

It turns out that there was an earthquake yesterday in Indonesia, though some was away from Bali, in Southern Sumatra. The magnitude was 4.9, which isn’t particularly serious. According to a website called earthquaketrack, there have been ten earthquakes of a similar strength across Indonesia over the past nine days, and three in the past twenty-four hours.

So is Mother Earth gearing up for a big one? Oh well, at least it would be a distraction from the bloody coronavirus. If the virus doesn’t get you, the earthquake will. Time for the British stiff upper lip, and a survey of the room to find the best place to shelter. Under the mattress, most likely.

We’re also keeping a close eye on events in Thailand. We’re due in Phuket in ten days’ time. So far, no coronavirus cases have been confirmed on the island. The Bangkok Post reports that 70% of the Chinese people who normally visit at this time of year are absent. Ten days is more than enough time for new cases to become obvious, so if it turns out that Phuket is falling victim to a substantial outbreak, we’ll consider our options.

If things start getting interesting here, I’ve half a mind to ask a friend, who lives nearby and is a spiritual healer, about whom I wrote a year ago, whether he can summon the spirits to provide us some immunity. Just a thought, although yesterday there was a mass prayer event in Kuta, presumably intended to have the same effect. When in Bali do as the Balinese.

Our Chinese neighbour has been moved to another room, away from neighbours. I hope he’s okay, obviously for more reasons than self-preservation. What his compatriots in mainland China are going through warrants compassion, not condemnation.

More when I have it.

Postcard from Bali – travels with a face mask

Should we go or should we stay? These were the questions that kept bouncing back and forth within my family since the coronavirus story started to unfold. But we are not in Wuhan, where the consensus seems to be yes, get the hell out of there if you can find the means to do so.

Our dilemma arose because we were due to leave the UK for a holiday in two places fairly close the the epicentre of the virus – Bali, and then Thailand. What would we find when we arrived? The virus had already spread to Thailand, but we weren’t due there for a couple of weeks.

In the days leading up to our departure, I scoured the media for information on the new virus. In one sense, I was in familiar territory. I’d been in the Middle East when swine flu broke out, and I spent a good year glancing nervously at passing camels when it emerged that the MERS outbreak had its origins in a beast best beloved by my Saudi friends.

Before MERS, we had SARS, another coronavirus. Both killed people, but fortunately MERS was less eager to jump from human to human. The new one seems to be up there with SARS in terms of virulence, but less lethal then MERS. What should we call it, by the way? WURS sounds like a cross between a self-fulfilling prophecy and a continental sausage, but nCov2019 doesn’t make the grade as an easily recognisable term.

After much deliberation and a trip to the DIY shop for builders’ masks (it seems that much of the UK has run out of the surgical variety), we decided to go.

We arrived in Bali via Stockholm, Doha, Phuket and Kuala Lumpur. In each stop-off you could judge concern among travellers and authorities over the possibility of exchanging vapour trails with the infected by the number of people wearing face masks.

In Stockholm, very few mask wearers were in evidence, apart from those of Chinese origin who tend to wear them come rain and shine. The mask count got higher in Doha, where we were able to buy a box of 50 from an airport pharmacy just before the next customer hoovered up their remaining stock before staggering off with boxes balancing perilously on each arm.

Phuket was mask city. All the workers and all but a few western passengers were wearing them. That included us, though I felt I was betraying the stiff upper lip by hiding it behind my mask like an ER doctor. It also didn’t help that every time I breathed out my glasses steamed up, which wouldn’t have been useful if I was performing heart surgery.

Kuala Lumpur was similarly masked, though Bali – our final stop – was less so. Either they don’t read the papers in Bali or they’re displaying their usual cheerful fatalism in the face of world annihilation. Perhaps the fact that no cases have yet been reported in Indonesia had something to do with it.

The flights had the usual assortment of coughers and snifflers, of whom the worst was an Indian lady in the row next to us, who suffered a ghastly coughing paroxysm every ten minutes. By the end of the flight I was muttering “into thy hands O Lord I commend myself”. But she was wearing a mask, so one could only hope that whatever toxic exhalations she was producing remained confined to herself.

One of the vaguely reassuring bits of news was that several airports were screening passengers for signs of infection. Not so reassuring was that only in Phuket did we encounter someone who waved a thermometer in our direction. I can only assume that the others had thermal imaging kit that showed you lighting up like a Christmas tree if you had an abnormal temperature.

Since we arrived in Bali we’ve spoken to a few locals about the virus. Most of them have reacted with nervous laughter and told us that no, we don’t have a problem here. The devil inside me thought no, you don’t know you have a problem yet, but the chance of your escaping when Thailand has cases is zero. Only a matter of time, dear friends.

Anyway, our calculation is that in our advanced years we can die of any number of things. The restorative effect of a few weeks of calm in Asia while Britain V-signs its way out of the European Union, Donald Trump lives to fight another day and the people of Syria endure yet more unspeakable catastrophes must surely mitigate the risk of ending up dead in a faraway oxygen tent.

Not that we’re being complacent. We have our face masks, our antiseptic gel and we wash our hands as religiously as Howard Hughes.

If in the meantime Thailand turns into a secondary version of Wuhan, we’re resolved to up sticks and go home. One thought that occurs to me is that while Thailand plays host to a large number of tourists from Wuhan, on previous visits we’ve noticed that Chinese tourists tend to buy package holidays. Because of language difficulties they often seem to stick together rather than interact with the locals. Common sense (rather than any knowledge of epidemiology) would suggest that infections would be more likely to occur within tour groups rather than among the locals. No consolation for the unfortunate people of Wuhan, but potentially good news for the Thais.

But should we turn tail for home, is there any guarantee that we won’t find an equally worrying outbreak back in our home country?

What the hell. Much as Sinophobes are delighted to denounce the people of Wuhan for their predilection for eating exotic animals, this could just as easily have been a flu pandemic, in which case we wouldn’t have anyone to blame. The upside for those of us who survive this virus is that each successive plague – be it flu, coronavirus or haemorrhagic fever, increases our ability to deal with the next one.

More updates on the impact of the virus in this neck of the woods when I have them, assuming I’m still around to tell the tale.

On Brexit Day

On Brexit Day I will have little more to add about the folly on which we Brits have embarked. I’ve said what I have to say on numerous occasions over the past three years.

I’m ashamed at the behaviour of the flag-waving Brexit Party MEPs at the European Parliament, who remind me of school leavers mooning at their teachers on the last day of term.

I’m moved by the genuine expressions of affection and regret by leading lights in the European Union.

And I’m repelled if not surprised by the feckless optimism of Boris Johnson’s government, whose sunlit uplands will quite possibly become barren wastelands the closer we move towards them.

But hey ho, we are where we are. Over the next few years we face the consequences of a national reset to the factory default. No trade deals worth the name, diminished influence abroad, a shaky union and five years of incompetent government led by an entitled shyster. Time to start again on a number of fronts.

At least that’s the gloomy prognosis. In reality, we will no doubt muddle through, but if anyone thinks that we are entering a period in which we will break free of the national introspection that has plagued us since 2016, they are surely naïve.

Looking on the bright side, we still have a few things going for us. Even though our entrepreneurs seem to think that the objective of bright young start-ups they create is to turn them into factories for self-enrichment by selling them off to foreign buyers at the earliest possible opportunity rather than building them into economic powerhouses that prosper for generations, we are still blessed with scientific and technical expertise, artistic creativity and a culture of invention.

We will find a way through the mess we have created, despite rather than because of our political leadership, which in recent years and across the party spectrum has set new standards for incompetence.

Although I’m past the age of economic usefulness, other than as a source of funding for the next generations whose horizons have been stunted, I still have one burning desire.

I want to live long enough to see the unveiling of the true story of Brexit. By that I mean the full revelation of the influences, the motivations and the actions of those who made it happen.

That story, as far as I can see, is only half-told thus far. A comprehensive understanding of the roles played by the prime movers and cheer-leaders – from Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and Aron Banks to a host of other more shadowy figures – has surely yet to emerge.

I much prefer to look forward rather than than back, but a proper understanding of the Brexit story will help us learn from the experience. If it reveals things to be fixed and wrongs to be made right, we might avoid a similar debacle in the future.

My heart, my culture and my values are European. No political realignment will change that. And I’m confident that enough people in my country feel the same way that at some stage in the future what has been lost can be found again.

When is a government a regime?

If you’re like me, and you read a fair amount about politics, you usually focus on the essence of the story without paying too much attention to the words that are used, unless of course they themselves are the story, or you find the choice of language to be offensive.

The other day I read a piece about the Iranian government in the London Times, in which it was referred to as a “regime”.

The word regime, at least in the Western press, is mainly used to describe a government that, for one reason or another, the publication thinks we might not like. The reason is usually the authoritarian flavour of the entity in question. If a new entity has come about as the result of a revolution, the one that succeeds it, if it meets our approval, is usually referred to in the media as a government. But if it comes about through a coup d’état, it’s usually a regime.

Only after an unspecified period and under certain circumstances does the regime in a smallish country mutate into a government. That usually happens after it has held elections judged by the West to be free and fair. Until then, it’s a regime.

However, in a large and powerful country, the ruling political entity gets to be a government more or less immediately after it comes into being. We don’t, for example, refer to the governments of Russia and China as regimes.

In the case of Iran, when did it get to be a regime rather than a government? Was it when the Islamic Republic started locking up and executing people, which was more or less from the beginning of its life?  Or was it when it turned into something that other governments would like to change? Perhaps through the eyes of the West it was always a regime.

So here’s a thought. Since Donald Trump and his administration are displaying increasing authoritarian tendencies, should we call his administration a regime? Likewise the government of Narendra Modi in India?

And what about Saudi Arabia? It’s had the same government, uninterrupted by coups or revolutions, since 1932. Over the past 70 years it’s been a friend of the west. But it’s not a democracy, and it locks up dissidents and executes them through an opaque legal system. Does it deserve to be called a government or a regime? The answer, seems to be that when it buys lots of arms from us, it’s a government, and when its agents dismember Jamal Khashoggi, it’s a regime.

And Turkey? Since President Erdogan started locking up large numbers of journalists, has his government morphed into a regime?

On one level, this is unimportant. After all, newspapers are all talk. On another level, it is important, because the words they use influence us, often without our even being aware of it. Regime is a word with a slightly bad smell. It has the whiff of illegitimacy. It’s frequently used as part of a compound noun, as in “regime change” or “regime overthrow”.

So when newspapers – and politicians for that matter – refer to a government as a regime often enough, this conditions us to regard it as illegitimate, and worthy of being overthrown.

In the case of Iran, Donald Trump seems intent on encouraging the people of Iran to protest, and ultimately to overthrow their government. That is presumably the purpose of sanctions – squeeze until the pips squeak. He probably doesn’t care that a revolution in Iran would be violent, and that the outcome would not be guaranteed to produce a more benign alternative. One could hardly say that the governments of Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Russia have left their citizens happier than their predecessors.

Before Trumpland, politicians with an ounce of nuance would point to other countries whose revolutions looked more like evolution, and whose citizens have benefited accordingly – East European countries for example. As a consequence, nobody refers to the governments of Poland, Latvia and Hungary as regimes.

If I was Iranian, and I sat watching nervously as outside my window protesters are being arrested and gunned down, I reckon I would far prefer to see incremental change rather than yet another revolution. And this, surely, was one of the things Obama was looking to achieve with his nuclear deal.

So when we sit down with the London Times, the New York Times, the Daily Mail or the Washington Post, and we see a government being referred to as a regime, it does no harm to stop and ask ourselves who has made that determination, when and why. And in whose interest it is that the government in question be tarred with the brush of illegitimacy.

Most important of all, who would have to suffer in order for it to be made legitimate?

I don’t doubt for a moment that the Islamic Republic is controlled by ruthless people who care little about the lives of its citizens, just as Saddam Hussein was prepared to sacrifice countless Iraqis in order to keep his grip on power.

So under what circumstances is Iran likely to change for the better, by which orthodox opinion in the West usually means an apolitical military, an independent judiciary, laws that guarantee freedom of expression and an end to the stifling orthodoxy imposed by the Supreme Leader and his theocratic institutions?

I would suggest that barring an externally-generated regime overthrow, such changes will only come about under two alternative circumstances. The first is a violent revolution that would most likely be costly in lives and infrastructure. The second would be if the rulers felt secure enough to make changes without feeling their power threatened.

The latter scenario is very far from the current reality. By all appearances Iran’s rulers are deeply insecure. To make concessions through internal pressure would be seen as an act of weakness that in their view might invite more pressure.

If, on the other hand, Iran could be persuaded to give up its imperial ambitions and withdraw support from its various armed proxies in the region – in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq – such a move would pave the way to a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the United States. Not only that, but the money it would thereby save would be available to improve the lives of its own citizens.

By this logic the removal of General Soleimani would provide Iran with an opportunity to move in that direction, were it not that his assassination by the United States is seen by many Iranians as both an infringement of sovereignty and a national humiliation. And indeed, putting morality and legality aside, a more emotionally intelligent American president would perhaps have opted for a covert, deniable hit.

Even if Iran did roll back funding and direction to its proxy militias, it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of them. Given the instability in Syria and Iraq, some would look for other sponsors, and rivalry between militias might lead to yet more hostilities – a situation ISIS would undoubtedly exploit. But a period of adjustment might at least bring an opportunity to move towards a peaceful settlement.

There would still remain the little matter of its nuclear ambitions. But the JCPOA nuclear treaty remains as an option if Trump, or his successor, chose to reinstate it.

There have been some commentators who point out that in the various debates on the future of the region conducted in the Western media, the voices of the people within it are rarely heard. I agree with them. Most of what you read on the subject concerns the geopolitical aspects of the various rivalries, despite the efforts of some journalists and relief organisations to highlight the human costs.

Perhaps if we started looking at the conflicts from the perspective of those most affected – the powerless citizens of the region – different solutions might present themselves. We in the West have become numb to the suffering. You could argue that most of us only care when the victims arrive on our doorsteps seeking refuge, or when a film like For Sama intrudes on our daily diet of more prosaic concerns.

We are days away from the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. If you follow the Auschwitz Museum on Twitter, every day you will see a picture of one of the victims, along with a brief description of their lives. It’s part of a campaign to ensure that we never forget the crimes committed there. Yet while strenuous efforts are made to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive, do we pay enough attention to the suffering of the living and recently departed of the Middle East? Perhaps in a similar way we should be able to remember the victims of the wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and beyond.

So back to the original question: when is a government a regime? Try listening to the opinions of those who have lost everything. I doubt if they’d care. But their views matter as much as those of the people who stand to lose their power, or of people like me, who sit in safe distance away from conflict that seems never to end.

For in the despair of the dispossessed lies the seeds of conflagrations to come.

Is this the future of the British monarchy?

I have no opinion on Harry and Meghan. Clearly The Times – which yesterday published a leader column, two op-eds and six pages of reporting about the couple’s rupture with the royal family – thinks that enough of its readers do have an opinion. Either that or it reckons that we readers have enough of an interest in the royals that an opinion can be implanted in us.

From a brief scan of the headlines in other newspapers, it’s reasonable to assume that The Times’s obsession with this story is shared by everyone else in the print media.

If I were to be really cynical, I could probably make a case that in the US, Donald Trump chose to eviscerate General Soleimani in order to divert attention from his embarrassing impeachment trial, whereas someone in our shameless government persuaded Harry and Meghan to go public with their bombshell announcement now so as to draw attention away from early signs of Brexit chickens coming home to roost.

But I’m not a cynic, and the thought never occurred to me that whereas the Americans are panicking about World War III, we in Britain are working ourselves into an equal frenzy about one branch of the royal family peeling off to do its own thing.

I do wonder what foreign observers must think of our collective nervous breakdown over the sixth-in-line to the throne. Some no doubt are fascinated, but the rest must surely think we’re barking mad.

While it’s true that there are plenty of people in my country who care deeply about the royals, as witness the popular response to the death of Harry’s mum, Princess Diana, I wonder how many of us are truly bothered, beyond a profound respect for Her Majesty, about the comings and goings of the rest of the Firm.

For sure, the newspapers would miss Harry and Meghan if they disappeared, and thousands of trolls would be devastated to lose a favourite target.

The rest of us are quite content with having a relatively inert figurehead at the apex of our society. For those looking for a little excitement from our head of state and her family, the Harry and Meghan saga is just about as good as it gets. Alas, the Crown was long ago stripped of the ability to make mayhem and stir up passions over real issues. Which is a shame, because our monarchy has a fascinating history. They don’t make kings and queens like Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Richard III, Henry VIII, the first Elizabeth and Charles I anymore.

I also wonder what we would do if the monarchy, under the aegis of King Charles III, decided in a final constitutional meltdown to abolish itself. We would then have a republic and would have to decide between an executive presidency and another figurehead, presumably elected on a regular basis.

My guess is that the ego of Boris Johnson would propel him towards an executive head of state on the French model, Macron-style, provided that he could become president. Before Donald Trump took power, perhaps the American way would have been favoured. But the notion of the United States as a stable democracy with checks and balances between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary is somewhat discredited after three years of Trump’s wrecking ball.

The alternative, of course would be ceremonial presidency along the lines of the Irish model. Michael O’Higgins, in his role as the twinkle-eyed National Leprechaun, does a splendid job embodying the qualities of the Irish that are loved throughout the world.

But who would we select to represent our hugely diverse nation? If we were Sweden, Greta Thunberg would be a shoo-in, or possibly Saga Noren, if it were not for the fact that she’s a fictional character.

But Britain? It would help if the candidate had bloodlines from each of the four constituent parts of the UK. If I were a bit more famous, I would gladly offer up myself, since I have English, Scottish and Irish blood (though no Welsh, perish the thought). But I fear that come an election I might lose to Gary Lineker.

Perhaps the choice would be simpler, since there’s a good chance that the United Kingdom will soon no longer exist. In that case, our first president would need merely to have South Asian, African and East European ancestry as well as English and Welsh.

They would also need to speak Mandarin and have hints of LGBTI, as well as a smidgen of atheism and other distinctive identities. Most importantly, they would have to be into cricket, since they would have little else to do in the summer other than to attend test matches.

Beyond these agonising choices lies another opportunity. Since we are proud of our record of technical invention, perhaps we should consider becoming the first nation in the world to create an AI presidency. That way there would be no need for incessant elections, since the president would be in office for eternity, subject only to the occasional upgrade. Properly designed, it would be reliably independent, impervious to influence and, in the long run, bloody cheap. We already have ERNIE (above) who does an excellent job selecting the winning numbers of our premium bonds. Surely he could be tweaked?

What’s more, if AI diagnoses breast cancer better than humans and can beat the world Go champion, surely it could be programmed to kick Boris Johnson in the arse should he ever again attempt to prorogue parliament for anything other than the purest of motives.

I know I’m veering towards silliness here, but since we now live in a me-obsessed world in which the principal human right is not to be offended, surely we’re asking too much of any human being to replicate the qualities of our poor old queen, who has spent her whole life in a straitjacket of selfless devotion to the art of neutrality in all things. People like her just aren’t available anymore.

So why even try?

After Soleimani

Aleppo – Bab al-Nasr

Despite having read a bunch of stuff about the assassination of Qaseem Soleimani, I’m still struggling to make sense of it.

Part of the problem is that as one of the 99.99% of onlookers not in the know about circumstances under which Trump made the decision to “eliminate” Soleimani, the events of the past three years – the history of disinformation, lies and erratic decisions coming out of the White House – give rise to all manner of interpretations about why the United States decided to kill a leading member of the Iranian government.

Was there really an imminent threat to American lives, more than the general threat Soleimani posed? Was Trump’s decision a calculated attempt to deflect attention from the forthcoming impeachment trial?

We just don’t know, although we may at some stage in the future.

What I do know is that there is no region in which the population is more manipulated, with more lethal consequences and over a longer time than the Middle East and North Africa. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people in those stricken countries want nothing more than to live in peace, raise their families and live productive lives. I know this because I’ve lived amongst some of them over the past few decades.

In virtually every country in the region those who in their hearts yearn for quiet lives have been manipulated by their political, spiritual and community leaders. They have been manipulated by foreign actors whose agendas extend way beyond the welfare of citizens. They have been manipulated through the social media. They have been manipulated by foreign media that propagate false expectations, false cultures and false information.

Thanks to that manipulation by people who care not a jot for the suffering, the deprivation and the killing they cause deliberately or through neglect, generations of innocents have had their lives destroyed through no fault of their own. Those who live in areas that have not been affected by armed conflict over the past few decades remain in fear that the contagion of violence will spread to them. They live in fear of their rulers. They are cowed into docility by draconian laws, pervasive surveillance and well-publicised punishment of dissenters.

We in the West are not free from covert or open manipulation. But at least our citizens are not encouraged to turn on each other and violently persecute minorities. We do not tolerate at home the armed militias that we encourage and fund in other countries. Not yet, anyway.

Autocrats, warlords and demagogues will come and go. Like Soleimani, they will leave legacies of broken bodies, shattered cities and fractured societies. My thoughts are not with them as they leave the stage, violently or otherwise. They are with the benighted people of the Middle East and North Africa who have been so ill-served by their own leaders and by other powers with vested interests in the region.

All I know is that they deserve better.

A message for the next decade: political movements are fine, as long as they’re regular

The festive season is a time of year when the principle of garbage in and garbage out most tellingly applies. I sometimes think it’s a miracle that Britain’s ancient sewers cope with the additional outflow that results from the stuff we pile into ourselves across the country. When the garbage out bit of the equation doesn’t happen, it can be a major problem seldom discussed in polite society.

People are quite happy to talk about the opposite problem – the world falling out of their bottoms. For some reason that’s funny. But constipation isn’t. It’s an embarrassing secret.

The British newspapers are currently full of pontificating articles reviewing the past year, and the past decade for that matter. Most of them are not worth the newsprint – or digits. For me, the main story has been how the nation, for the last three years, has had a bad case of political constipation over Brexit.

Now Boris Johnson, with the aid of dodgy money and dollops of rabble-rousing from the right-wing press, has inserted a massive suppository up Britain’s back passage, and the logjam has broken. Constipation has been replaced by what the Germans call durchfall – a much more descriptive word than diarrhoea, I’ve always thought.

The outpouring is of intentions. A northern powerhouse, wonderful trade deals and a host of legislation marinaded in Johnson’s optimism. Will we revert to our former bunged-up state when we discover that rhetoric and intentions are as short-lived as endorphin highs, that the shiny new Britain he promises might take decades to emerge, and that progress will be won through dreary compromises that please nobody and pragmatic decisions that leave us as far away from “taking back control” as we’ve ever been? Shame on me for my lack of enthusiasm, but I fear so.

Some of us are still afflicted by political verstopfung – the equally superior German term for constipation – for other reasons.

Along with half of America and much of the rest of the world, I have been watching and waiting for the fall of Donald Trump. So much so that it’s hard to remind oneself that a new president wouldn’t necessarily be able to undo the chaos and confusion that Trump has left in his wake. But to see him, his lackeys, backers and maleficent policies expelled down the toilet in a mighty durchfall would be well worth the political equivalent of a couple of Lomatil capsules to restore the digestive balance.

And yet, as we wait for the resolution of problems that seem to block up our thinking with every passing day, we sometimes forget that life doesn’t stand still. Suddenly, as Australia burns, we remember that climate change is more important than a deranged American president. As protests flare in Baghdad, Tehran and Beirut, and the killing escalates in Idlib, Tripoli and Mogadishu, we remember that revolutions have a habit of bringing with them more chaos, not less.

So do we respond to new challenges by imprisoning and seeking to re-educate a million of our fellow citizens in order to preserve the great leap forward that is delivering rice, smartphones and railways to the uncomplaining majority? Or do we seek to transform our nation into an entity made for the benefit of followers of one religion, while within our borders there are 200 million believers in another creed?

Do we close our borders to intruders from “shithole countries”, as Trump calls them, without making efforts to address the conditions that turned those countries into “shitholes” in the first place? And where do we take refuge when threatened by hypersonic nuclear missiles developed in a nation whose government is fuelled by a longstanding grudge that means little to the ordinary citizens of the resentful nation or to those of the adversaries they menace?

Over the past week I’ve seen a number of commentaries that seek to convince us that the past decade is the best ever, whatever that means. And yes, those of us who have survived the upheavals with our lives and lifestyles more or less intact have plenty of reasons to feel that we’ve never had it so good, even if our satisfaction is tinged with guilt that this is not the case for everyone.

For the lucky ones, of whom I am one, it’s easy to focus on the small picture of our personal prosperity and only concern ourselves with the immediate threats to its continuation. Equally easy to drive ourselves into an impotent fury or dull depression about the big picture over which we seem to have little control.

Those of us who suffer from an endless cycle of emotional verstopfung and durchfall can comfort ourselves with the example of Martin Luther. The founder of the European Reformation clearly didn’t eat his greens, because he suffered severely from constipation. Legend has it that he would spend hours every day straining in his closet, but that after long contemplation in that state he came to believe that salvation was to be gained not from deeds but from faith.

Luther was no doubt thinking of his eternal soul rather than his pain-racked body. Whether we are the deed-doers or the anxious watchers, I suspect that faith alone will not see us safely through the next decade.

There’s much to be done to turn optimism into action. Whether or not the importance of balance in the human digestive system is a good analogy for the way we should be tackling the real problems facing us is not for me to judge. But surely it’s better to chip away at the logjam of pressing issues in digestible increments rather than by grand purgative gestures.

With that, I wish all of you who visit 59steps a Happy New Year. May your movements be regular and your hopes for the future be based on reality as well as faith.

Pols and trolls – advice from a nobody

If it should come to pass that some future government introduces a Universal Living Wage, in which everybody gets a salary, regardless of whether they’re working or not, I fear one thing. Twitter will be transformed from a vicious bear-pit into an ocean of foaming sulphuric acid.

Having plenty of time to do stuff doesn’t mean that the stuff you do will be pleasant or life-enhancing. That’s the only way I can explain the 70% of Twitter content that is, at best, trite and banal, and at worst, hysterical and psychotically malign. For politicians who are at the receiving end of the abuse, lies and vituperation, it must be soul-destroying.

I can only assume that many of the people behind the tsunami of ordure thrown at politicians don’t have enough to do. Even if they live busy lives, they have acquired – with the aid and encouragement of the social media – a taste for sadism. Much more fun, I imagine, than lunch breaks chatting with colleagues or evenings watching box sets.

I am fortunate. In Twitter terms I’m a nobody. You could just about fit all my followers in your local pub, if you have one. Though I have plenty of axes to grind, I don’t have elections to fight, profiles to maintain and legions of admirers to satisfy. So nobody bothers to troll me. And if they did, I would be in the happy position of being able to say “so what?”, and to encourage my critics to go stuff themselves.

I write this because I’ve been doing a bit of digging into the Twitter audiences of candidates for the Labour Party leadership. Of all these worthies, the person who seems to have come in for the biggest battering is Jess Phillips (above middle). She’s an MP from a Birmingham constituency I know quite well. She’s one of the more prolific tweeters, which might explain why she attracts so much attention.

Based on the things she says, not only on Twitter but in interviews and on TV, I warm to her. I suppose it helps that we’re both Brummies, even though I deserted that wonderful city 40 years ago. But I get the impression that she’s a kind and caring person who would be good company. Just as importantly, she hasn’t lost the ability to think for herself. Or at least that’s the image she’s successfully projected in my direction.

Why then does she come in for more stick than just about everybody else actually or potentially in the leadership race? She’s accused of being gobby, of taking the Murdoch shilling (by virtue of an interview in the Sunday Times), of being a racist and any number of other unpleasant things. On the gobby bit I can defend her. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, the odious Brexit ultras and a host of other male politicians are allowed to be loud and shouty. But she, being a woman, clearly isn’t.

Her primary political sin, apparently, is that she’s not a dedicated follower of Corbyn and his praetorian guard, also known as Momentum. But that shouldn’t be grounds for people to say that she isn’t sufficiently working class (as if that’s relevant), or that she’s a racist when she patently isn’t. And it certainly doesn’t justify death threats.

How she deals with the abuse is beyond my understanding. Likewise, many other members of parliament, mostly female, who have been driven to extreme steps to maintain their personal safety. Jess Phillips appears to read all her Twitter responses. Perhaps she takes comfort from the view that if nobody bothers to abuse her, she’s politically dead. But years of online poison must surely corrode the soul. Bitterness must breed bitterness, and threats must eventually lead to paranoia. Do we really want the people who scrutinise our government’s policies and pass our laws to be frightened wrecks?

This is surely a serious issue. Boris Johnson has the entire machinery of government through which he can express a point of view. But individual MPs, especially if they’re reluctant to follow the party line to the last detail, can find themselves in a lonely place. Not only are they jumped on by their own parties, but they’re at the mercy of hordes of twitter trolls. Wither free speech? Are we heading into Trump World, in which anyone in the Republican party with independence of thought is bullied, threatened and abused into cowed compliance?

Twitter gives a platform to guerrilla politicians who have few other means to communicate their ideas. It worked for Donald Trump, but he’s not exactly a person whose personal traits everybody would try to emulate, even if he is sent by God to come to the rescue of the American people.

How do you survive the constant attention of people whose hobby, and possibly sole means of expression, is abusing people online, and still retain some sense of balance and stability in your life?

Just as important, how do you maintain an effective democracy if anyone with an iota of independent thought who dares to raise their head above the parapet ends up drowning in hate? It’s hardly an attractive part of the politician’s job description, and probably explains why so many of our representatives are mute nonentities.

Once upon a time, victorious Roman generals, as they rode in triumph through the streets of Rome, would be accompanied in their chariot by a young slave, who would whisper in his ear “remember general, you are mortal”. Perhaps these days there needs to be someone by the side of people like Jess quietly whispering “remember, you are not a bad person” as they’re pelted with virtual rotten eggs.

Better still, politicians, upon whom we depend for all our sakes to stay mentally healthy, should rely more on their staff to wade through the abuse, the death threats and the lies on their behalf. The assistant could then spare their boss the everyday meanness of the trolls and only alert them to stuff that needs action – threats and hate mail to be reported to the police, lies to be rebutted and libels to be pursued. If they don’t trust their regular staff to do that job, then perhaps they should find a friend who has their interests at heart.

Even if the most significant employees have been selected by an atypical process, parliament is a workplace. If I ran a business in which my employees routinely suffered abuse, I would make sure that they received training in how to deal with it, and counselling for those whose mental health is threatened.

I did a quick search on Google to find out what training the House of Commons provides MPs. All I found was a few seminars on how to handle expenses properly, and a Speakers’ handbook describing the correct protocol for the proceedings of the House.

In other words, nothing on handling the social media, on laws relating to libel and hate speech, on personal protection and on resources available to deal with illnesses such as alcoholism and depression.

That’s not to say that guidance doesn’t exist. So I’m writing to my newly-elected local MP, who happens to be a mental health doctor, to get his impressions on the safety of Parliament as a workplace. Assuming he replies, I’ll post an appropriate update.

Meanwhile, I wish all members of parliament a happy and stress-free Christmas break. And for God’s sake, don’t post your holiday pics on the social media, especially if, like Boris Johnson, you’re in Mustique, because someone out there is bound to have the time and inclination to let you know how happy they are for you.

Just give yourselves a rest for the next few days. I suspect you’ll need all your strength for the next twelve months.

Grief and joy in a green and pleasant land

The election’s over, thank goodness. The birds are still singing, even if in my garden the songs of native birds are drowned out by the screeching of parakeets – a metaphor in the making. The land is still green, if a little soggy.

My country is leaving the European Union. The prospect is easier for me to accept than it might be, because I don’t consider being a remainer defines my personality or any other aspect of myself. I just think Brexit is a mistake, and in the coming months and years we shall find out how much of a mistake. Or maybe not.

It’s much harder for Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters to accept that the Momentum project is probably all over as well. They put their heart and souls into Corbyn’s programme, and I suspect that Labour’s policies are far closer to their self-perceived identity than Remaining is mine.

For this reason, it’s probably counter-productive to ram down their throats the suggestion that their leader and his policies, as well as his equivocal stance on Brexit, were responsible for Labour’s demise. That opinion may be correct, but his supporters will take some time to accept it. Accepting that you were mistaken in your beliefs is not something that happens overnight.

The same goes for Donald Trump’s supporters and the Republican Congress members, who seem to have acquired a cult-like belief in their President. The more you threaten a person’s belief, in my experience, the more you harden it. It’s a defence mechanism.

What now? If you supported Boris Johnson, you will rejoice that the prospect of five years in power. You will look forward to the benefits of Brexit. If you were one of the voters in the Labour heartlands who elected a Conservative for the first time in donkey’s years, you’ve put your faith in a government that you hope will improve your neglected area. You have responded to Boris’s message of hope and optimism. I hope, I genuinely hope, that he doesn’t let you down, though not to the detriment of others.

For those who didn’t vote for the Conservatives, of whom I am one, the task ahead is to oppose. Not against logic, nor against measures that are self-evidently fair and beneficial. Opposition – beyond the remit of the political parties – means holding the government to account, questioning the implications of policies, questioning motivation and not hesitating to call out impropriety and illegality of any kind, including corruption.

There are tools available to us that are more robust than those available to those who oppose Donald Trump. A judiciary that over the past three years has shown itself to be genuinely independent, and will remain so unless Johnson chooses to politicise it. A civil service that is also by tradition free of political affiliation. Likewise, security services that have no political agenda.

Over the next five years we shall see what Boris Johnson is made of. Is he a clever but shallow showman interested only what’s good for him, as many have suggested? If so, he will be disappointed, because power for its own sake soon loses its sheen. A man who wrote two letters before the 2016 referendum, one in favour of remaining in the European Union, and the other in favour of leaving, as if preparing for either argument in an Oxford Union debate, is not necessary a man of conviction. And without at least some basic convictions, the grind of political leadership will surely bore him in the long run.

Is he an empty vessel, a receptacle for the political convictions of others? It’s perhaps unfair to label him as the creature of Dominic Cummings. He had a career before Cummings. Political leaders have always used advisers. The best used them as sounding boards and devil’s advocates. The worst – Theresa May for example – seemed incapable of their own original thinking and relied on their advisers for every new initiative. A person without principles or convictions hitchhikes on the ideas of others. Theresa May at least had a moral core that guided her beyond expediency. Has Johnson?

Whatever lies at Johnson’s core – tungsten or jelly-baby – we shall have ample opportunity to find out. No greater test of his abilities will come than when he has to deal with a crisis. It could be the consequences of Brexit. It could be something entirely unexpected. If he hides in a fridge, or delegates the hard decisions to others, his credibility will quickly evaporate. And if such a crisis were to bring him down, we would be left with a new Prime Minister who has not been tested by the electorate. At that point, wherever we are in the five-year term, there would be overwhelming pressure for another election, as Alec Douglas-Home and Gordon Brown discovered.

The next five years are fraught with peril for any number of reasons – Brexit, the rivalry between Russia, the US and China, instability in South East Asia and the Middle East, climate change and the stability of the United Kingdom itself. The men and women elected as the governing party would do well not to gloat over the woes of the defeated.

As for the Labour Party, the period of reflection promised by Jeremy Corbyn, if left in the hands of those who currently control the party, is likely to focus on practicalities rather than principles. Having fought for decades to grasp the levers of power, the ideologues who propelled Corbyn to the leadership will not give up that power easily.

Labour would do well to reflect on its hard-wired definitions of political purpose. In an age of atomised identity – leave and remain, North and South, big city and small town, England and the other nations of the Union – is it still relevant to speak of a working class, of the many and the few, of public ownership and a “Labour Movement”?

I don’t know the answer, but instead of obsessing over left and centre, and to past allegiances to Corbyn and Blair, Labour needs to focus on the here, the now and the future. If a “movement” inspired by ideological faith can’t attract the support of the electorate, how can the party create a coalition of beliefs, tailored to the likely challenges of the next five years, that will attract, if not always inspire, bus drivers in Consett and hipsters in Dalston?

To use a religious analogy, what does it take for Catholics, Evangelicals and traditional Anglicans to work together as Christians, or for Sunni, Shia and Ahmadis to respect each other as Muslims?

I suspect that most people who have voted Labour in the past have their own idea about what the party meant to them when they voted for it. “My Labour” in other words. I certainly do. I imagine that Kier Starmer, a former Director of Public Prosecutions and Denis Skinner, a former miner, do as well. Our belief systems are born of our life experiences and those of the communities in which we were raised. Each is different – in some cases radically so – but not necessarily incompatible. The successful political parties are those who find common cause rather than shared faith. Only then do they have a chance of power.

There will be plenty of opportunities for the new government to fall down holes they will have dug for themselves. What Labour needs to do, before it can resume the role of an effective opposition, is to think carefully about who “we” are, and to agree what it’s for rather than be defined by what it’s against. And most importantly, accept that what “we are for” will change as the world changes, rather than remain enshrined in an immutable scripture.

The same goes for the Liberal Democrats, who face an equally uncertain future.

I am of a generation that’s closer to the end of life than the beginning. I see beginnings all around me – a grandchild, the grandchildren of friends. I don’t know how many more general elections I will take part in. But what I do know is that I’ve had a good life, and I want the same for my kids, their kids and everyone else’s kids. For me, that’s not a belief. It’s a responsibility, even if in my case it’s imperfectly discharged.

If I get to vote again in a future election, my vote will go to whichever party can prove to me, in actions as well as words, that they share, and have the policies that can best fulfil, that responsibility. From that principle, everything else follows.

Britain’s Jews are not them – they are us.

Replica of the Temple menorah

As we in the UK reach the end of a poisonous General Election campaign, one of the distressing themes has been anti-Semitism. If there’s a single factor that has helped bring anti-Semitic sentiment to the surface over the past few years it’s been the social media.

Like other forms of racism, anti-Semitism has always been there on the fringes of our society. Every so often it rears its ugly head when people feel emboldened to reveal their hidden thoughts. It happened in the 1930s with the rise of the Blackshirts, and it’s happening now as it seeps out from the dark corners of the internet.

If I could tweak the algorithms of the social media to accentuate the positive, the inspiring and life-enhancing rather than the negative, divisive and angry, I know exactly how I would combat anti-Semitism.

I would give prominence to those who focus on Jews as people, and who celebrate their achievements and their contribution to civilisation.

I claim no expertise in the field, but I think I understand the reasons for anti-Semitism. Fear of the other, jealousy, suspicions about divided loyalties and centuries-old conspiracy theories about cabals of bankers and politicians who seek global domination by non-military means. Above all, the need for a scapegoat to blame for whatever troubles are besetting the society of the day.

The existence of the State of Israel has provided additional fuel to anti-Semitic sentiment both in countries that played a role in its creation, Britain and the United States for example, and those that didn’t.

I’ve written plenty of words in appreciation of the Arab world, its people, its cultures and its heritage. Less so about the Jewish world, which is everywhere and, until the creation of Israel, nowhere in a majority – hence its vulnerability to prejudice and persecution.

As someone who lived for many years in a Muslim country, perhaps I’ve held back for fear of upsetting my many Arab friends, some of whom blame Israel for all the problems of the Middle East since 1948. Skirting an issue is always easier than challenging prejudice.

So at the risk of losing a few friends, here’s how I feel about my fellow citizens who happen to be Jewish. As a community held together by religion and ancestry, Britain’s Jews have been a disproportionate force for good. Disproportionately talented and hard-working. An integral part of my country’s culture. Outstanding contributors to science, business, academia, the arts and literature.

Instead of reviling them and making them feel the need to have a suitcase packed by the front door, we should be thankful for their contribution to society, and we should welcome more to our midst.

Equally importantly, they are not them. They are us.

So I would ask those of us who spew hatred upon our fellow-citizens on racial grounds, how can it be morally justifiable to speak for “the white race”, regardless of nationality, if we vilify Jews for a fellow-feeling towards Jews beyond national boundaries? And equally, how can we condemn Muslims for their celebration of the umma – the worldwide Muslim community?

What’s more, for those whose hate is based on a person’s religion, how many of us in Britain have EVER felt threatened by the outward signs of Jewish religious observance, or by the rituals and customs themselves?

Nothing I am writing here diminishes my respect for the customs and traditions of other religions, including Islam. Nor does it diminish my profound disquiet that over the decades since the Oslo agreement, the State of Israel has failed to take opportunities to resolve a conflict with Palestine that aside from political considerations has become a multi-generational blood feud.

But to suggest that the Jews of Britain or any other country slavishly support the actions of Israel – good or bad – is an insult to the culture that has enabled Jewish communities to produce outstanding minds. And to suggest that British Jews are divided in their loyalties between Britain and Israel is an insult to those who fought and died for our country, and to whose energy and inventiveness have done so much to enhance our lives in so many ways.

Fifty years ago, when I was a teenager, for the vast majority in our society the fact that a person, famous or not, was Jewish was neither important nor noteworthy. Their patriotism was never questioned. They were just British people who happened to be Jewish.

I wish we could return to that state today, even though that seems unlikely given the way that modern society has fragmented into a hundred identities over which we endlessly obsess and argue.

On this Election Day, whoever wins or loses, instead of being anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigration and anti- a thousand other things that we blame for the lack of perfection in our lives, let’s try and celebrate the things we’re for – the positive things and the positive people who do so much to make our existence at least good in parts.

If that sounds unduly pious, I write this partly as a reminder to myself, since I am one of those who has struggled over the past three years to see the positives in an era of Taking Back Control and American Carnage.

Fake News – empowering the truth-seekers

A question for parents: did you bring your children up to speak the truth? Naturally, most of us would answer yes. The next question is: did you help your children learn to tell the difference between truth and lies? Not so many, I suggest.

The other day I came across a simple test for detecting online misinformation. It was produced by First Draft, an organisation that, according to its website, “is a global non-profit that supports journalists, academics and technologists working to address challenges relating to trust and truth in the digital age”.

The SHEEP test is an excellent critical thinking aid. It should be taught in every secondary school as a mandatory part of the National Curriculum. Hence the question about our kids being able to detect falsehoods. But even if that started happening, a huge percentage of our population is still reliant on common sense, curiosity and an actual desire to sniff out disinformation.

And that, unfortunately, is something that most of us don’t have the time and inclination to do.

Received wisdom is that “fake news” is eagerly lapped up by millions of social media users, on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and that the social media is the source of the problem. If that were the case, then it would be an entirely new phenomenon, which of course it isn’t. Goebbels did a decent job without the social media, as did countless other governments and organisations that throughout recorded history have spread lies for political, financial and institutional advantage.

As the current UK General Election campaign shows, while disinformation is spread widely and deliberately via the social media, it also needs influencers who will nudge others to take it seriously. And as research – such as that carried out by people like Marc Owen Jones – shows, it’s not just bots that spread the lies.

As an example, here’s what appears to be an obvious attempt to attack the story of the sick child in Leeds that caused Boris Johnson such grief yesterday:

As Alex Andreou pointed out on Twitter, these three people “all have the same friend. They all have the same person writing their tweets.” Further digging on Twitter reveals that they are just three of many people tweeting identical comments. But using the SHEEP test, are these tweets genuine? Do these people exist? Who knows?

Real journalists take up stories – false or otherwise – and send them on their way. Hence Channel 4’s boob in misinterpreting Boris Johnson’s words about immigration – people of colour versus people of talent being allowed into the country. And most recently, there was the story about a minister’s aide being assaulted by protesters, which turned out to be untrue.

For me, the real problem is people’s willingness to believe stuff because it conforms to their world view. The social media is merely another, albeit highly efficient, route to market for ideas that will implant themselves in fertile soil. What politicians fear most is that once the idea has been let loose, there is little they can do to rebut it to the satisfaction of millions of voters who have no interest or involvement in the social media. And for unscrupulous politicians, that is precisely the effect they rely upon.

I’ve lost count of the amount of times that people I know have repeated the old lie, first put forward by the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, about Britain facing an invasion of Turkish immigrants. When I try to rebut it, the response I get is to the effect that “well, immigration is still a problem”. In other words, they have a view, based perhaps on personal experience and perhaps also on previous lies, and nothing I can say will change it.

So yes, it’s absolutely right to discredit fake news, and ironically the social media makes it easier through analysis of sources to identify and prove falsehoods. But in the long term it’s possible that we will only regain respect for the truth after we have experienced the catastrophic consequences of lies. Brexit may or may not be that catastrophe in the UK.

Even if we educate every generation of schoolchildren in the art of critical thinking, it will be fifty years before those lessons become truly effective. We can’t wait that long. So what’s to be done?

The social media companies are coming under increasing pressure to root out falsehood, particularly in the political arena. Twitter has responded by banning political advertising. Facebook has resisted, taking the view that it’s up to the audience to figure out what’s true and what’s not. Not exactly an overwhelming response.

One way forward would be to set up a mechanism for disqualifying politicians from standing for office – or throwing them out of office – if they demonstrably tell falsehoods.

There are parallels. Many professional associations disbar members on grounds of misconduct. And if I, as a company director, misrepresent the facts about my company, there is every possibility that I might be found unfit to be a director under the Company Directors Disqualification Act and barred from serving as such in the future.

Also, political parties and pressure groups could be fined for making false statements, particularly in connection with elections.

Neither of these measures would be 100% effective. You would need to prove that the falsehoods were deliberate rather than accidental. If they emanated from proxies, you would also need to prove that they were being promulgated with the knowledge and approval of the beneficiaries – the politicians or their parties. But they might make people like Boris Johnson a little more careful about what they say.

The other oft-touted remedy would be to define the social media companies in law as information providers – and as such responsible for the stuff that appears on their sites – rather than the neutral platforms they claim to be today.

To bring these changes about you would need to counter ferocious opposition from both the politicians and social media companies. Which is why I believe that only a catastrophe resulting from fake news would produce sufficient pressure on lawmakers to act.

You could argue that one such disaster, a war fought in Iraq justified by fake evidence of weapons of mass destruction, had little effect on our tolerance of political lies. But the 2003 Iraq War, however catastrophic for the people of Iraq, did not directly affect the social fabric of the participant countries. Brexit, or some other unknown future event, might.

In the absence of some seismic event, we are left with the efforts of pressure groups, some of which are highly effective in shaping public opinion. Led by Donkeys (@ByDonkeys on Twitter) for example, gained wide publicity by their videos projected on streets in the constituencies of Brexiteer MPs, that called out the inconsistencies of those MPs’ statements. But most pressure groups have, or are perceived to have, a political agenda, which means that they are not trusted by those who don’t share the agenda.

How easy would it be to set up a truly independent organisation that has one purpose only: the exposure of falsehoods in public life? Not easy at all, I suspect. The BBC would claim that political impartiality was embedded in its DNA, an assertion that would produce a wry smile from all the political parties that routinely accuse it of bias.

Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. None of us want some disaster to ruin lives and livelihoods. So one step in the right direction would be for social media companies to go some way towards restoring their ragged reputations by funding an independent foundation dedicated to identifying and calling out falsehoods – regardless of their source or underlying motivation – in the public arena. First Draft, which receives funding from multiple sources including Google, Twitter and Facebook, clearly does valuable work. In addition to its training services, it runs a website called Crosscheck UK, which features stories about disinformation in the public space.

But we need an organisation that goes further. According to its website “CrossCheck is not a fact-checking service. We will debunk obvious falsehoods and present evidence around disputed online material, but CrossCheck is dedicated to the stories and context behind disinformation rather than labelling individual pieces as true or false.”

In my opinion that’s not enough. We need an organisation that actively warns of disinformation and analyses potential fake news stories that are referred to it. It needs to call out lies when it can if has the evidence to do so. It needs to be the default place to go to find out about fake news. And it needs to be able to react swiftly to referrals, given how quickly disinformation spreads. Above all, it needs to build trust in its expertise, integrity and lack of bias.

Would such an organisation be as effective in reaching their intended audience as guerrilla tacticians such as Led By Donkeys? I don’t know. And would they be able to answer the question posed by Pontius Pilate – “what is truth?” Again, debatable.

But to have an unimpeachable gold standard for truth-telling prepared to embarrass the liars without fear or favour would surely be a start.

We have to do something. If climate change is the physical challenge of our century, then surely contempt for truth is the moral challenge.

Britain Decides – Election Fever in the Throbbing Heart of Surrey

The British national newspapers are full of reports from various parts of the country on the progress of the 2019 General Election. So I thought I’d add a few breathless words from Surrey, that notorious political hotbed, home of some of Britain’s most ferocious revolutionaries – Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt to name but two.

Sorry to disappoint, but if you live in Runnymede and Weybridge, my constituency, you’d barely notice there was a general election next week.

Posters are hardly to be seen. No canvasser has knocked on our door. We’ve had three leaflets. The first was from UKIP, featuring a rather sardonic-looking candidate who looks as if he’s having a laugh, which is good, because he hasn’t a cat’s chance in hell of being elected.

The other two are from the Conservatives. Why they bother I wouldn’t know, because their candidate hasn’t a cat’s chance in hell of not being elected. But I did read their stuff with interest, largely because Spreadsheet Phil, otherwise known as Philip Hammond, our rather dour former Chancellor of the Exchequer, is standing down after being kicked out of the party for being unreliable on Brexit.

The new candidate is a fresh-faced chap called Dr Ben Spencer. According to his blurb he’s a mental health doctor with the NHS. Why then he’s abandoning the health service for parliament would be worth exploring. Presumably he feels he can achieve more with the mentally ill in Westminster than he can with his hospital patients.

The UKIP candidate, Dr Nicholas Wood, according to Google is a lecturer in chemistry and pharmacology. He also would be useful to his fellow MPs as a source of advice on the most effective anti-depressants for those whose political careers are on a downward spiral, which, under Boris Johnson, would be most of them.

I imagine the other candidates are also called Dr something or other, because my constituency is impressed by titles. We’re in one of the main catchment areas for the Wimbledon tennis championships, and we’re well aware that when we’re entering the ballot, conferring a doctorate, knighthood or peerage upon ourselves greatly enhances our chances of getting tickets.

Dr Ben’s blurb is full of well-meaning local stuff about building flood defences, getting Weybridge and Runnymede moving, and protecting our environment. Well, it’s true that some houses virtually float away every time there’s flooding, but what he doesn’t mention is that the local council, usually Conservative, could be a little less enthusiastic about letting developers build on flood plains. As for getting us moving, it’s hard to see what can be done without knocking down some of the most expensive properties in the country to build bypasses. And the environment? He would say that, wouldn’t he?

In any event, these are matters over which he will have zero control and little influence as a new MP. After all, if Spreadsheet Phil, the nation’s Mr Moneybags for many years, couldn’t drift a few quid our way, it’s hard to see Dr Ben managing to mitigate the gridlock that starts at around 3pm in my town.

The rest of his missive is taken up with the rather insipid messages churned out by Conservative Central Office. 40 new hospitals, as yet unfunded. 20,000 new police officers, to replace the ones that went away during the last ten years under the Conservatives. Billions on this, zillions on that, and bugger austerity. And the key messages from Project Fear Version 2: vote Lib Dem, get Jeremy Corbyn; five years of arguing over Brexit; propped up by Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP; another referendum to break up Britain.

All of which is a little rich, and makes big assumptions about the consequences of a hung parliament, the biggest of which is that Brexit will still happen, and the second biggest is that there would be another Scottish referendum, which would negate any moral justification for not holding a second referendum on Brexit.

Dr Nicholas, the UKIP man, is a little more full-frontal. Among other things, he wants to deliver a clean-break Brexit, end mass immigration, “Sack liar politicians”, scrap the BBC licence fee and defend British Values and Free Speech. He also wants to ban non-stun slaughter – of animals presumably – which is a well-aimed jab at Muslims and Jews. Oh, and he wants to replace railway crossings with bridges.

To be fair, he does say a few things with which I agree, such as free tuition for STEM and medical degrees. But the rest is pretty standard Little England UKIP fare.

I’ve had nothing from Labour or the Lib Dems, despite the fact that the latter have a decent representation on the local council. As for posters, or the lack of them, I imagine that the main parties (or at least the Conservatives) have taken the view that their money is better spent running mendacious ads on Facebook, which will be all the more easily viewed when they deliver on their extravagant promises on national broadband provision.

I have no idea why their profiling algorithms saw fit to bless us with their literature. In any case the algorithms were dead wrong. I’ve never voted for either of them and I never will. But still, with or without my support, it’s a racing certainty that Dr Ben will be heading for Westminster, though I do expect the Lib Dems to come a respectable second – this is remainer territory after all. I wish him luck. I hope for his sake that his new career doesn’t turn him into a gibbering idiot.

I searched around to see if there were any hustings in my area – the only one happened three weeks ago, but in the process I accidentally found some profiles of the other candidates. The Lib Dem guy, who’s not a doctor, it seems (though perhaps he’s hiding it), is what he describes as a recovering archaeologist. On his Facebook profile he wears a jaunty hat perfect for excavations in the Shetlands. Definitely my kind of guy.

There’s also someone who used to be a Brexit Party candidate and is now standing as an independent. She apparently is “sick of party politics”. As well she might be, having been dumped by Nigel Farage along with all her colleagues standing against Conservatives.

The other independent lands two telling blows on Dr Ben, our front-runner. First, the good doctor lives in Bromley, all of 30 miles away – a carpetbagger if ever there was one – and second, he voted Remain in 2016. Not that he won’t get elected, but I fear even more for his sanity when thrust into the embrace of swivel-eyed fanatics like Mark Francois in the new Parliament. I hope he takes note of the recent resignation of the delightfully-named Alexandra Hall Hall, the British diplomat in Washington who recently resigned because she’s fed up of having to dole out the bullshit on Brexit that her job requires.

As for me, a sullen dissenter in a safe Conservative constituency, I have to leave it to other voters to deny Johnson his majority, as I fervently hope they do.

Should things go the PM’s way, I comfort myself in the knowledge that the readers of Surrey Live, which features the candidate profiles I found, will be able to console themselves with what the website clearly believes is an allied activity likely to be of interest to followers of politics. Directly under the profiles was rather a steamy picture of a man and a woman in a car, which linked to a feature called Surrey’s 21 most popular dogging hot spots.

Unfortunately we no longer have a dog, so I shall have to continue to entertain myself by stomping around the golf course trying to be polite to the seventysomething Brexiteers who helped get us into the current mess.

Whatever the outcome on December 12, no doubt Surrey will continue to throb, though I doubt if the weather is particularly conducive for skipping off to the polling booths let alone any other form of outdoor pursuit.

Postcard from Cambodia – Part 4: The Rise of the Ancient Backpacker

Sihanoukville – the casinos have almost reached the sea

Back in the day, backpacking was a serious business. Plenty of my generation took the hippy trail to the East, hitchhiking overland through Turkey and Iran to Kabul, then on to Kathmandu, Delhi or Goa, sustained by inexpensive food and lodgings. After months of cheap dope and spiritual enlightenment, they would run out of money and rely on handouts from anxious parents to make it back home. No internet, the occasional postcard, fast diminishing traveller’s cheques and finally the emergency call for help.

The locals would look at these visitors with a mixture of incredulity that people from rich countries would deliberately seek poverty, and greed at the prospect of what wealth they could extract from them.

“Going travelling” was something you did before you went to university or took a proper job. Older folks were somewhere on the path between buying their first home and retiring on a decent pension.

Several decades on, things are a bit different, in the UK at least. The kids are at home, struggling to pay the rent, and if they need a handout, they have to contact their parents, who happen to be backpacking in Bali. Yes, there are still young people out in obscure tropical locations looking to find themselves, but few of them are far away from an ATM and an internet cafe.

These days backpacking seems to be a multi-generational thing. Rather like Glastonbury, but somewhat more time-consuming.

We saw the evidence when at the end of the trip to Cambodia we stayed at a small resort which consisted of a dozen bamboo villas, a central eating area and a pool. The villa had most of the mod cons that we wanted – air-conditioning, a functioning shower, decent wifi and the all-important kettle. It wasn’t four or five-star luxury, but it was all we needed for a quiet week before we headed back to stormy Britain. For $40 a night, what’s not to like?

Across the road, the same owners offer little huts with communal bathrooms for $9 a night. The people who stay there check in to the central dining area, so we got to see them as they passed in and out.

Most of them were groups of two or three. Usually they were loaded with backpacks that looked heavier than they were. But for every bunch of young travellers, there was an equal number of grizzled older folks, often in their fifties and sixties, also lugging big rucksacks. Some of the guys appeared to be travelling alone.

How many were dedicated long-term travellers was hard to say. The overland routes are now blocked off, so most of them would have arrived on cheap flights that weren’t available fifty years ago.

The young ones reminded me of our elder daughter and her boyfriend of the time, who at the age of 18 set off for a gap year trip that took them to India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and the west coast of the USA. I can’t say I wasn’t worried about their safety, but hey, life’s a risk, they did the self-defence course and they made it back OK.

But today, a decade on, would I be so sanguine? The kids, especially the girls, looked so vulnerable, so fragile.

Would I be comforted by the presence of those older backpackers, or more worried? When we arrived at Sihanoukville, I thought to myself that if I was on the run, this would not be a bad place to hang out. And then I read that the city has indeed been a refuge for dodgy travellers, including paedophiles, who have plenty of scope to do what they do. I thought of Gary Glitter, who used Cambodia and neighbouring Vietnam as his hunting ground. How many like him have never been caught?

In this town at least, the days when you can easily go off grid must surely soon be over. As China’s investment in massive hotels and casinos bears fruit, the original inhabitants live in what is increasingly becoming a small enclave surrounded by what our resort owner sadly refers to as “the new Macao”. Chinese investment will surely bring Chinese surveillance technology. Hiding places will be harder to find.

Will that be a good thing? In one sense yes, if you see mass surveillance as a means to guarantee order and safety. But many people from the West, young and old, go travelling to see worlds different from their own, to learn from different cultures and bring new perspectives to their daily lives back home. And unlike in their own countries, there are still places to go where the camera doesn’t pry. Needless to say, only a tiny number seek anonymity for nefarious reasons.

But for the upwardly mobile nations of South East Asia, increasingly falling into China’s economic (if not yet political) orbit, backpackers are the wrong type of tourists. Living on a tight budget, unable to load themselves with additional baggage, they have money to spend on doing stuff rather than buying things.

Are the Chinese any different? Not that much in my experience, except that the large number of visitors from mainland China are part of a first wave of tourism from that country. Most come on package tours, and travel by coach from place to place in large groups. Hotels don’t benefit hugely from their presence because the tour operators negotiate big discounts. Often enough, they spurn dining outlets for street food. Partly because of language difficulties, they stick to themselves – so there’s not much interchange to be had with locals or travellers of other nationalities.

But I doubt that the concrete palaces of Sihanoukville are being built for them – at least not the high end properties. Just as the shimmering towers of Dubai are not for the low-paid workers who build and maintain them, so it will be the moneyed classes who will enjoy the new Macao.

Already, according to a young Japanese guy who befriended us at the resort, many of the tens of casinos in the city are open already. They’re glitzier than Las Vegas, and they’re packed with Chinese gamblers sporting huge wads of dollars. Illegally gained money, he reckons, which they must use or lose.

For how long the native Khmers, many of whom resent the dilution of their culture and specifically the dominance of the Chinese, will tolerate their lowly status remains to be seen. As the graffiti on a wall close to our beach proclaims: “RIP Sihanoukville”. Another, on a sign next to a rare piece of undeveloped land, says “Not for Sale”. And this one speaks for itself:

My backpacking days are over. In fact they ended almost as soon as they began. A trip through France and Italy in the summer before university was about the extent of it. Afterwards, a few rock festivals and that was that. These days, the old knees wouldn’t stand more than a few hundred metres weighed down by twenty kilos of baggage on my back.

But for those with young knees, it must be quite disturbing to think that they can travel halfway around the world, break free of parental influence and end up in a bamboo hut next door to one of Mummy’s best friends.

Alas, the days of taking off thousands of miles away with only a rucksack for company may soon be over. If the ice shelves keep slipping into the sea, those beautiful beaches may turn into salt marshes or mangrove swamps. And emergency measures to reduce CO2 emissions might render long-haul flying beyond the pockets of all but the very wealthy, who will not be bringing backpacks.

What the future would hold for those who rely on tourism for a living is anybody’s guess. In Sihanoukville, perhaps those who decry the Chinese city rising around them would, after all, be grateful for the presence of the new visitors. Assuming, of course, that the casinos don’t slip underwater along with the rest of the coastline.

For me, such a mournful prospect is perhaps academic. By that time, having played my full part in screwing up the environment, I shall probably be looking forward to the annual old folks’ coach trip to Bognor Regis. If Bognor still exists, that is.

Postcard from Cambodia – Part 3: The Road to China

Sihanoukville – concrete festooned with cranes

Holy shit! Such words rarely utter from my mouth, since in moments of perceived peril I prefer the British equivalent: “bloody hell”, or simply “I say…”. But there are times when the stiff upper lip dissolves into quivering astonishment.

Anyway, the last thing you want to read from a pampered old fart like me is a description of a road trip peppered with near death experiences. I leave that stuff to professional travel bloggers, most of them aeons younger than me, who make money through writing about their exotic experiences.

I suppose it also helps that most of them are fit, healthy and with Facebook smiles ready to burst into life at the moment God provides a majestic backdrop. Whereas you wouldn’t be fainting with pleasure at the sight of me sitting like a grumpy toad in a bus designed for malnourished stick insects on the way from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Just imagine William Barr, the equally toad-like Attorney General of the United States, in a pair of Marks and Spencer shorts and a sweaty tee shirt, man-spreading between a long-suffering wife and a Chinese construction worker. Not blessed, as the Irish, including my wife, would say. So no photos. I couldn’t stand the adulation.

But I’ll share a few snippets, more by way of caution for those thinking making a similar trip.

I’m well used to dodgy highways whose purpose is less to help people get from A to B than to enable trucks to carry their monstrous cargo from one centre of commerce to another. The Dammam-Jubail highway in Saudi Arabia is a good example, where trucks plough deep furrows that are difficult to negotiate even in a SUV travelling at 100 miles an hour, and which occasionally disappears into temporary sand dunes, hence the wrecked vehicles that litter both sides of the road.

But Cambodian National Highway 4 is something else altogether. It’s a two-lane road, but it has a truck’s width of compacted red soil on either side. Which is important, because most drivers consider this part an unpaved extension of the road, which explains why when you’re scuttling along and a huge truck full of concrete pipes appears on your side you quickly scuttle on to the hard shoulder to get out of the way. Or, when you encounter a tailback (every ten minutes approximately) you take a nifty shift onto the pot-holed soil for a few hundred yards before sidling back into the crawling line. There were times when I expected our bus to turn into a hovercraft and go straight across the paddy fields beyond the hard shoulder.

And then there are the motorbikes. As in most of the poorer countries in the region, the average Cambodian gets about in low-powered bikes that accommodate up to four people – usually two adults at either end with two kids squashed between them. Larger forms of transport adopt a might-is-right attitude, so when faced with overtaking oncoming traffic, the motorbikes scatter like houseflies, usually onto the side, but sometimes between the vehicles. The same goes for tuk-tuks. If I needed a daily reminder of how precious life is, one way of getting it would be to ride a stretch of Highway 4 on two wheels. Within seven days, though, I’d probably be dead – if not spread over the radiator of a juggernaut, certainly choked by the fumes.

What lies at the end of the road? Here’s a strange thing. Sihanoukville is one gigantic construction site. 90% of the hotels, apartments, malls and casinos being thrown up at breakneck speed are the result of Chinese investment. It’s as if the Chinese have run out of new cities to build in their homeland and have decided to inflict one on their neighbour. The city’s participation in the Belt and Road initiative probably has something to do with it. But the relentless appetite for tourism from mainland China is turning the once-modest port city into a concrete paradise, much to the dismay of locals who feel that their culture is being overwhelmed.

But if you were the minister of planning – if such a post exists in Cambodia – before allowing a construction boom, would you not build a proper road system, at least in the approaches to the city, that can accommodate the endless stream of pollution-spewing, road-churning traffic that turns a daily journey of a few miles into hours of automotive hell? And while you’re about it, why not build a proper railway that doesn’t just run on a single track three days a week. I’m sure the Chinese would be happy to oblige given their prowess in road and rail-building. Or is it that they don’t give a shit on the basis that most of their citizens will be arriving and returning by air?

The same goes for the other end of the journey. We were promised a four-hour bus journey. The bus was fifty minutes late leaving, and took almost two hours to crawl as far as Phnom Penh airport. The entire journey actually took eight hours, and that wasn’t even the end of the journey. Our considerate bus company, instead of taking us as scheduled to the bus terminus, dumped us outside the city centre without apology, leaving us a one-hour journey in a tuk-tuk to our destination. This to travel a mere 138 miles, at a measly average of 15mph.

Not that I’m complaining, because at least we were in an air-conditioned bus. But I felt sorry for the van-load of pigs, confined to tiny cages, noses bloodied by continual abrasion against the metal bars, staring mournfully at us as we passed them by.

If there is a minister of planning, he should be ashamed of himself, though he can probably claim that he inherited the situation. Phnom Penh is also a mess. A few well-designed traditional buildings surrounded by lumpy high-rises cheek by jowl across ridiculously narrow streets. Planning? You must be joking.

Phnom Penh

Sihanoukville, the part where people actually live as opposed to come to stay, is even worse.

Siem Reap, the home of Angkor Wat, is a bit of an exception. There’s a distinct lack of high rises, and the place feels like less of a rat run, despite the famous tourist trap known as Pub Street, where bars compete with each other to make the loudest music – an auditory nightmare.

So what the hell, you may ask, are we doing in the middle of a construction site? Fortunately there are a few places where you can still escape the dust and the din, and that’s where we are. You can still hear the clanking and sawing as a background noise, but it’s distant enough to be able to filter out. The sea’s close by, even if you have to march past a shanty town of tattoo parlours, bars and minimarts to reach it. There you will see a contrast in vistas. Look left, and you will see dreamy green islands. Look right, and the concrete inferno shimmers on the horizon.

We’re staying in one of a collection of bamboo villas. Close by there are more basic versions rented out by backpackers for a few dollars a night. The place takes me back to our first trip to these parts back in the Eighties. Phuket at the time was on the cusp of development. No fancy hotels, no ladyboys and outside the main town not much else. Just wooden huts, beaches, long-tail boats and deserted islands. When we came back twenty years later, the place was unrecognisable.

No doubt this little resort, ran by a French guy, will give way to the concrete tsunami before long. Until then, it’s still possible to dine in relative peace and quiet with the owner’s choice of music in the background: Erik Satie, Ali Farka Toure, Cannonball Adderley, the Beatles and Monteverdi. And a reminder of times gone by as impossibly frail-looking female backpackers waft past to check into their huts across the road.

Yes, I know, this is a western lament in the Asian Century. We no longer count, and, you could argue, nor should we if we don’t bring in the money that helps the country develop. Assuming, of course, that that’s where the money goes, rather than into the pockets of the corrupt.

When the concrete collides with the sea, crushing the shanty towns and driving the unmoneyed travellers elsewhere, how long before the little green islands also become grey monuments to mass tourism? I suspect the plans are already being drawn up somewhere in a Shanghai office block.


Postcard from Cambodia – Part 2: Angkor Wat Essentials

This is the blog piece everybody posts when they visit Cambodia, so I’ll be brief.

What will I tell friends who are thinking of visiting the temples of Angkor Wat?

Read up on Hindu mythology and acquire a working knowledge of the essentials of Buddhism, or get a guide who will explain things to you. Otherwise the intricacies of the architecture and the endless friezes will mean little. We didn’t use a guide because we didn’t want to be constrained into a schedule, but we did buy a book, which was very instructive.

Get reasonably fit and bring plenty of water. Some of the temples take hours to explore. Angkor Wat itself, if you choose to explore it thoroughly, involves some climbing. Not surprising, considering that its five towers symbolise the mountains where the gods hang out.

Unless you stay for at least a week and go temple-visiting every day, you will not scratch the surface of what is on view. Angkor Wat is only one of a number of temples within a huge complex. I suspect that only the dedicated avoid becoming templed-out at some stage.

if you’re visiting Ta Prohm, known to Indiana Jones fans as the Temple of Doom, you’ll have plenty of company. It was the busiest of the temples we visited. You will be the accidental subject of many selfies.


As for the structures themselves, I can think of a few houses down my way that would be far more interesting if they were eaten by trees.

Ancient Cambodians seemed to like fighting. Go around the cloisters of Angkor Wat, which takes an hour, and you will witness many battles, both heavenly and earthly. A 12th Century Brexit wouldn’t get a look in.

Heaven is boring, hell is spectacular. Graphic depictions of the visceral agonies of hell outnumber visions of heaven by at least ten to one. The medieval Christian church would definitely approve. If I was going to Angkor’s heaven, I would definitely bring a Travel Scrabble set.

And finally, the temples themselves are impressive, including those that haven’t been restored. Beautiful? For me, yes, but that depends on your idea of beauty. The sad thing is that there is little evidence of the human settlements that surrounded them. Houses and palaces were made of wood, and simply rotted away. Personally, I like to try and understand something of the lives of the people who built the ancient structures and lived around them. What did they think of their gods and emperors?

That said, if you’re thinking of visiting Cambodia, Angkor Wat is the one place you must visit. The local people are friendly and helpful. The facilities are fine (you don’t need to use a squat toilet). The temples are a reminder – if you need one – that empires rise and fall.

Cambodians who suffer from poverty and corruption, and whose land was so grievously damaged forty years ago, perhaps take comfort from the idea that on earth, heaven and hell are temporary states, and that better times might be ahead of them.

Postcard from Cambodia – Part 1: Apocalypse Junction

I find it strange how a visit abroad sometimes points you towards one consistent theme, even if many of the inputs have nothing to do with the country you’re visiting.

My wife and I have just come back from Cambodia. One of the stops was Siem Reap, home of Angkor Wat, the country’s magnificent cultural jewel. As always when we go travelling, we bring a heap of reading material with us – usually non-fiction but on this occasion an equal smattering of novels. Over a period of three weeks I usually reckon to get through at least ten books – my wife the same. When we’re not reading, we’re exploring, or simply watching our fellow travellers.

In our hotel in Siem Reap we noticed a large number of American families. They were scrupulously polite, seemingly clean-living with well-behaved kids. It turns out they were evangelical Christians on a mission to Cambodia. The mission was to welcome the overwhelmingly Buddhist population into the arms of Jesus.

Very enthusiastic they were too. As we descended to the ground floor for breakfast, the sound of singing, whooping and clapping came from the top floor. They were presumably limbering up for a day’s foot-slogging through the streets of the city. I’m not sure how far they got because the average Cambodian’s knowledge of English is fairly limited, and I suspect that this hardy band from Philadelphia don’t have much Khmer.

Whenever I encounter Americans proclaiming their faith, these days I think of the so-called religious right, whose useful idiot Donald Trump will bring closer the apocalypse they pray for. This, of course, is grossly unfair to the Catholics, Episcopalians and Mormons who generally don’t rally to Trump’s flag. Yet when I see a video of a pastor claiming that the president is doing God’s work, I still find it hard not to think of the Antichrist, the Rapture, the saved and the unbelievers like me who are doomed to hell.

You may have guessed by now that my unifying theme is apocalypse. Apart from the biblical version, apocalyptic events come in different shapes and sizes. Here are four of them, one of them fictional, and the rest real enough. Was my choice of reading influenced by current political and environmental instability? Maybe, but not consciously so.

The Baghdad Diaries, by Nuha al Radi, depicts an apocalypse inflicted upon the people of Iraq by American and British weaponry in the 1991 Gulf War.

Al-Radi was a well-connected Iraqi sculptor whose world, like that of millions of her compatriots, was turned upside down as the anti-Saddam coalition bombed their country into the stone age. Apologists for the bombardment would have suggested that the Iraqis should blame Saddam for their misfortunes. But claims that the Coalition had no grudge against the Iraqi people did not wash the people themselves who if they were not killed or maimed, found themselves coping with shortages of medicines, food, water and electricity, while their rulers continued to live the high life.

After the defeat of Saddam, the embargo of Iraq took further toll. Law and order broke down. Black marketeering, theft and casual violence ruled the day. Al-Radi died of leukaemia the year after the 2003 war. She believed that the war of 1991 was responsible for her illness as well as those of an uncountable number of other Iraqis. She may well have been right.

What made her story easier to relate to was that she was an educated woman, familiar with the ways of the West and not particularly religious. It was easier for me, a privileged Westerner, to imagine how I would have reacted to the destruction of all I take for granted on my ordered society.

At any rate, many of those who lived through the past thirty years in Iraq will surely agree that they have witnessed a man-made apocalypse.

If one continues to think of an apocalypse in the broader, non-religious, sense, my next book describes just such an event. Last Witnesses, by Svetlana Alexievich is a compilation of stories told by people who as children were caught up in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The subjects were aged between four and twelve at the time of the invasion. They tell their stories in graphic detail: of bombing, shelling, the burning of homes; of mothers, fathers and siblings executed before their eyes; of fleeing to the forests, starvation, the kindness of strangers and betrayal by neighbours; of life in orphanages and, in rare cases, the joy of reunion with loved ones after the war, or the bewilderment of meeting parents they don’t remember.

I found it impossible to read the book from start to finish. Each little episode contains a drama of almost unbearable pathos. After a few such stories, I found myself needing to come up for air. How could a human being shoot a baby’s bottle from the grasp of a baby, then shoot the baby, and finally the mother?

Alexievich’s book was first published in the Soviet Union in 1985. The translated version only appeared this year. Why so long? While the West eagerly embraced Solzhenitsyn’s works – Gulag Archipelago and Ivan Denisovitch – because they confirmed the narrative of the hard-hearted Stalinist core of the West’s main adversary, perhaps Alexievich’s work, which celebrates endurance, patriotism and humanity in the face of unbearable cruelty didn’t fit the desired profile. Her other standout book, The Unwomanly Face of War, about women’s role in the conflict against Germany, deals with similar themes. Her Nobel Prize for literature clearly helped her reach a wider audience, which she richly deserves.

Every theatre of the Second World War had its own horror stories. But the experiences of those who survived the conflict in Eastern Europe were surely unparalleled in scale and viciousness, not only against the Jewish population but against those whom the Germans were taught to despise as untermenschen – sub-humans. It’s not hard to understand how bitterly the likes of Vladimir Putin, whose parents suffered during the siege of Leningrad, resented the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent lack of respect with which the former empire and its components were treated by the West.

The superhuman effort by the USSR in the Great Patriotic War, without which the Nazis might never have been defeated, is surely as much imprinted in collective memory of those who survived it and the descendants of the victims as is the Holocaust on collective Jewish memory, and the suffering of the civilian populations of Germany, China and Japan.

And if commemorations of the end of the conflict were designed only to respect and mourn the victims, rather than boast of military prowess, it would be an insult on the part any former combatant not to send their leader to Moscow for the 75th anniversary of the end of the  Great Patriotic War. And that includes President Trump.

Next to a fictional apocalypse. Robert Harris’s latest novel, The Second Sleep, imagines an England eight hundred years after the collapse of our technology-based civilisation.

An unknown event reduces the population by 90%, and leaves the remainder in a world without all the modern amenities upon which we have come to rely: electricity, power, communications. The church, which has survived as an institution, turns its back on exploration of the past by blaming the event on the apocalypse foretold by the biblical Book of Revelations.

Hence it is 1483 in a calendar that begins at the year 666, the Number of the Beast. Most of the infrastructure of the final century before the apocalypse – roads, towers, power stations and houses, have crumbled into dust, leaving only the ancient churches, fashioned from stone, standing. England is once again an agrarian society, reliant on blacksmiths for agricultural tools and subsistence farming. All evidence of the collapse, including books, that might contradict the narrative of the apocalypse, is ruthlessly suppressed.

Yet here and there lies evidence of another age. The murder of a priest who became too curious for his own good sets the stage for another of Harris’s compelling plots. His theme is close to my heart, for I’ve long been concerned about our reliance on the internet. Despite its original creation as a resilient form of communications in case of war, over thirty years it has evolved as the essential wherewithal for modern communications, supply chains, defence, security and government.

What would be the consequences of a catastrophic event that takes down all of our satellites? Have we gone past the point at which we could re-build our analogue technology before deadly consequences set in? The technology we rely upon is pervasive yet uniquely vulnerable. So it’s not hard to imagine some human apocalypse, be it internet failure, disease or war reducing those who survive to the conditions of a pre-industrial age.

Last but not least, a reminder that although memories of one apocalypse or another may fade over time, humanity has a way of reminding each generation that madness and cruelty is not the sole preserve of a more primitive age.

I remember the Khmer Rouge as if they were around yesterday. But our current visit to Cambodia was my first opportunity to breathe the air in spaces they once occupied. Prison S21 in Pnomh Penh was once a secondary school. When the Khmer Rouge took power they converted it into a prison and interrogation centre for the victims of the regime. Out of 21,000 inmates, only sixteen are known to have survived. The rest died under torture or were shipped out to the killing fields where they joined the other 2.5 million Cambodians who died at the hands of a government that wished to strip the country of its educated elite and all other potential obstacles to its vision of an agrarian society based on collective farming.

The buildings themselves have been turned into a genocide museum. They’re full of exhibits, from torture equipment to the photos of thousands of frightened inmates taken at the behest of Comrade Duch, the prison commandant. It’s strange how perpetrators of genocide often seem to obsess about the bureaucracy of extermination. Just as the Nazis did in their concentration camps, so the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records. Those that remained intact after their fall tell a baleful story.

We declined to visit the killing fields themselves. The shattered skulls in the Genocide Museum were more than enough evidence of what took place.

One little detail I discovered before visiting the museum reminded me how easy it is to take the moral high ground by imagining that such events are beyond the control of the bystanders. Cambodia paid in blood for the use of its mountainous region as a passageway for the North Vietnamese in the war against the South. The United States is alleged to have dropped more bombs on Cambodia than it did in the entirety of the Second World War.

After the Khmer Rouge were driven out of much of the country by the Vietnamese army, their remnants occupied much of the border area with Thailand. Not only did America and Britain allow them to retain their seat at the United Nations, but they supplied them with armaments to create a buffer zone that would prevent Vietnamese incursions into Thailand. Realpolitik at its most repulsive.

Since the events in Cambodia we have seen other killing fields – in Iraq, Syria, Rwanda, Bosnia and Burma. Some argue that we’re living through another – in China. Which goes to show that you don’t need an Antichrist to bring about an apocalypse – only the powerful not caring and the rest of us standing by and doing nothing.

Free broadband? Yes but…

Not that it’s likely to be relevant given that the current British election seems to be more about “Boris Johnson’s a good chap and Jeremy Corbyn is the Devil” than actual policies, other than Brexit of course, but Labour’s idea of nationalising our broadband has its merits. Unfortunately there are plenty of drawbacks.

Certainly, giving everyone a level playing field in terms of speed and access would benefit millions of people in areas where coverage and data speeds are currently poor. Schools and other poorly-served institutions would also gain, for a while anyway.

But…. Here are five reasons why we might in future see such a move as a serious mistake.

Lack of competition potentially affects pricing. If it’s free, it’s free. But not everybody can live with a one-size-fits-all service. There are bound to be premium services at a price, and if our new Broadband Agency, or whatever else it might be called, is unable to deliver super-fast internet at an acceptable price, there’s a danger that some businesses will move elsewhere, bringing jobs with them.

Dependence on government funding. Labour promises £20 billion to upgrade our internet infrastructure. Fine, but if the money runs out and other priorities take precedence, there must be a danger that we’ll be left with unfinished projects. There will be winners and losers, resentment and frustration, just as we find today in the National Health Service. Broadband will turn into a political football.

Competence of administration. Given the notorious failures by successive governments to implement IT and other infrastructure upgrades over the past twenty years, do we have much confidence that they’ll do a better job with broadband? Not only that, but once the upgrade is complete, do we seriously believe that the quality of management of the ongoing service would match that currently provided by the private sector, which is already pretty lousy?

Potential for government control of the internet. It’s hard to imagine Britain becoming an authoritarian state along the lines of Russia and China, but given where we are today less hard than we might think. Do we really want the internet to be controlled by an authoritarian government that sees the internet as an opportunity to keep tabs on its citizens, and in extremis can easily deny access to certain sites or even switch the service off altogether?

Vulnerability of internet infrastructure. With the internet free to everyone, it’s likely that any government would wish to roll out services exclusively through online delivery. That’s fine in theory, but it increases our vulnerability to cyber attacks that might bring the functioning of society to a standstill. Right now, you can still use traditional means to pay your bills, buy services, communicate and go about your daily life without having to go online. What if everything is online and the whole edifice collapses?

Those are the big five drawbacks as far is I’m concerned. Are they surmountable? Possibly. But there’s an even bigger issue. The internet is a wild and sometimes vicious place. We know all about porn, political manipulation, online fraud, gambling, the destruction of high street retail and other consequences of untrammelled access. Would it not be better if we took a holistic approach to mitigating the worst effects of the online world before we turn it into a state-owned utility?

I’m not suggesting a Chinese-style Great Firewall, which is synonymous with the kind of universal surveillance tool Vladimir Putin appears to want in Russia. But surely we can do more to protect ourselves from the erosion of our society at the hands of internet predators. After all, are our politicians not in the business of helping us to take back control?

I challenge each party to tell us how it proposes to protect us from on-line monopolies, the political exploitation of the social media, internet trolls and malicious attacks on our infrastructure. We should also hear how they plan to safeguard the vulnerable against fraud, porn and online gambling.

Address these issues in a package of measures that are practical and coherent, and then we’ll talk about free internet.


UK General Election – common sense or cultish dogma?

The British General Election campaign is only a few days old, and the standard of debate is puerile, nowhere more so than on Twitter. I’m not one for hurling insults via the social media, but there have been moments when I’ve been tempted to call out politicians of every hue as idiots. But I’ve stopped myself, on the basis that once you start you join the idiots. So I just read and reflect, aghast.

Apart from the shameless lies and baseless claims, what also concerns me is the hollowing out of the political discourse between left and right, and the exodus of so many women MPs who are fed up with the vicious abuse they receive via the social media.

I may not agree with the politics of Justine Greening, Amber Rudd, Tom Watson, Philip Hammond, Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart and the host of lesser lights who are bowing out of politics – for now or forever – but their departures diminish the diversity of opinion in parliament. Some of those who have defected to the Liberal Democrats may end up being re-elected, as might some who – like Dominic Grieve – have opted to stand as independents. But the chances are that the two major parties will be more polarised after the election, not less.

This time I will vote for the Lib Dems, not because I agree with all of their policies, but because they represent the best chance of driving a wedge between the extremes of Labour and Conservative thought.

Open-mindedness and critical thinking are not qualities that currently lead to a successful political career in the UK. In the United States, by contrast, while Donald Trump seems to have converted the Republican Party into a personality cult, the Democrats are engaged in what strikes me as a refreshing debate on critical issues such as taxation, healthcare and climate. The so-called progressives may not make it to the White House in 2020, but at least opinions that would previously have been held to be acceptable to the electorate are starting to move into the mainstream of political thought.

Our election, though, is dominated by Brexit, the ultimate example of closed thinking, despite the efforts of the contestants to shift the debate to other vital issues.

I could easily point to policies on all sides that would benefit the country, but our problem seems to be not a lack of bright ideas, but a lack of confidence in their practicality and the ability of the politicians to implement them. Competence, it seems to me, is in short supply. So consideration of policies takes second place to judgements on the ability of those we elect to deliver.

Therefore it’s hard to see the coming election as having any function other than to break the Brexit deadlock one way or another. Until that happens, no government will be able to get on and deliver a coherent programme. The immediate prospect for Britain will be compromise, fudging, nip and tuck. And sadly, those at the extremes will find that hardest to do because of the stridency of their messages.

I shall continue to watch and comment as I think fit. I shall read as widely as possible, including the asinine stuff on Twitter. But from where I sit at the moment I see no sunlit uplands beckoning after December 12th, even though I fervently hope to witness some of the worst charlatans and liars being cast into the outer darkness.

If this is to happen, more substantial numbers of 18-30-year-olds need to register to vote, and get out there on the day. If, as in 2016 and 2017, that generation fails to exercise its power to influence its future, can it legitimately blame the older generations for its troubles?

Be that as it may, I hope the nation surprises me and opts for common sense over cultish dogma.

Art for art’s sake, sponsors for God’s sake

The day after a report signed off by 11,000 scientists warns us of the imminent catastrophe of climate change is probably not the best occasion on which to offer some perspective on sponsorship of the arts by fossil fuel producers, but here goes anyway.

The British Museum is one of my favourite places in the world. In the coming months it’s putting on two exhibitions of great interest to me. The subjects are Orientalist art and the myths and realities of Troy.

The former is sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank. The latter receives funding from BP. According to the new orthodoxy, I’m supposed to approve of the Museum taking money from a bank that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and is notorious for its money-laundering antics thereafter, and disapprove of it receiving largesse from a company that extracts oil from the ground and thereby contributes to climate change.

Neither of these companies is, in my estimation, any more or less to blame for the predicaments each has helped to bring about than their corporate peers. Among predatory banks whose misdeeds helped to sour the financial prospects of a generation, are Standard Chartered any less evil than Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank or Barclays?

And are BP any more evil than Shell, Exxon, Saudi Aramco and all their illustrious predecessors?

Yes, according to a number of righteous organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have decided not to take BP’s tainted money anymore.

And yes, according to the protesters who staged a sit-in during the British Museum’s magnificent Assyrian exhibition, I Am Ashurbanipal. Apart from  – as the protesters claimed – urging Britain and America to attack Iraq in 2003 so that it could get its hands on Iraqi oil, BP bears the stigma of once having been the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, so its track record of economic imperialism and exploitation of hitherto poor countries in the Middle East is a further mark of shame in the eyes of the righteous.

I don’t enjoy games of moral equivalence, but I fail to understand why BP’s money is so much more tainted than that of a whole bunch of dodgy companies keeping afloat the icons of Britain’s arts establishment. Find a company, and someone, somewhere will find a reason to put a black mark against it.

Here’s a thought. I, for one, am profoundly grateful that BP and its competitors are still producing oil. I’d rather they were investing more in the business of wind, water and solar – nuclear fusion even. But if by some miraculous transformation all the fossil fuels in the world suddenly became unusable, you could be sure that what we think of as civilisation would collapse far more quickly and catastrophically than it would through the progressive disaster of climate change. Until we don’t, we rely on hydrocarbons for our energy, so perhaps we should have the grace to acknowledge that BP actually does something useful, as opposed to the banking community, whose main purpose appears to be making money out of money.

One more thought. If BP’s money is no longer welcome among the artistic great and good, it’ll find some other way to spend it. Otherwise it’ll end up paying more tax to the government. So which would you prefer? That it sponsors sport, or maybe starts supporting the Louvre? Or that it just pays tax that Boris Johnson and his cronies can spend on – among other things – an ad campaign warning us of the oncoming Brexit tsunami? Granted, more people get to see the Brexit stuff than experience the wonders of Troy in a London museum. But in three thousand years time, who will be learning lessons from Brexit?

In the name of austerity, state funding for the arts in the UK has steadily declined since 2011. Institutions such as the British Museum increasingly rely upon corporate sponsorship to maintain the interest of the public and their reputation for excellence. At the same time spending in schools on creative subjects has decreased. Libraries are closing across the country.

Before we force more of our treasured institutions to spurn contributions from the likes of BP – and Standard Chartered for that matter – we should ask ourselves whether in our righteous zeal we are happy to see the cultural life of the country further degraded at a time when the excellence of our scientific institutions is also under threat through the diminishing opportunities for international collaborative research that are likely to be the consequence of Brexit.

If not the likes of BP, who will fill the funding gap? Philanthropists? Yes and no. Plenty of institutions – orchestras for example – are reliant on individual contributions. But we don’t have the same culture of giving as exists in the US, where the likes of Carnegie and Guggenheim would always dig deep in search of personal monuments. As for our billionaires, James Dyson and Jim Ratcliffe to name but two, have scuttled off to foreign shores to escape the ill-effects of the Brexit they supported.

So my humble suggestion is that we shouldn’t be too choosy about the corporations whose money we welcome to enhance our cultural lives. Otherwise we’re left to the mercy of our parliamentarians, many of whom couldn’t tell the difference between a work of art and a hole in the ground.

UK population statistics – taking the football out of the attic

With exquisite timing given this week’s Brexit shenanigans in Parliament, the London Times has chosen to run a scare story about immigration on today’s front page. It quotes the projection by the Office of National Statistics that the UK’s population will grow by 3 million in the next decade.

Underneath the headline it states that “Immigration fuels a ‘staggering’ rise in numbers”.

The report was released yesterday, so the Times can’t be accused of timing its story to coincide with, or reinforce, Boris Johnson’s efforts to get his Brexit legislation through Parliament in time for the current leaving deadline of 31 October.

But it’s worth noting that the inflammatory use of ‘staggering’ comes from Migration Watch UK, an anti-immigration pressure group. Another group, Population Matters, points out that a 3 million increase in population over a decade amounts to an increase in required infrastructure and public services equivalent to three Birminghams.

Now I’ve long argued – as have many others – that one of the causes of the Brexit vote in 2016 was the failure of the government over the past couple of decades to invest in the schools, hospitals and other facilities necessary to support the growing population. People felt they were losing out, and blamed the newcomers, the immigrant population, for deteriorating services. No matter that the vast majority of immigrants paid their way in taxes and national insurance contributions, it was their fault. And, despite the fact that a significant minority of immigrants came from non-EU countries, it was the European Union’s fault for letting them in. Not ours, it seems.

I’m as concerned as anyone at the prospect of what seems like a runaway growth in Britain’s population. But we should bear in mind two things.

First, our rise in population has not come at the expense of the employment prospects of the non-immigrant (or should we say, in Home Office-speak, settled) workforce. Employment levels have remained at a level far higher than in the seventies and eighties, despite the effects of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s true that wages have stagnated, and a higher proportion of the workforce is now employed in the so-called gig economy, many of them on the minimum wage. But workers coming from the EU have simply responded to the economic opportunities. And the consequences of their choosing not to come can already be seen in the orchards of Britain, where millions of apples lie unpicked.

The second point goes back to the original source of the Times article – the ONS population projection. Here’s a quotation from the summary:

The UK population growth rate is slower than in the 2016-based projections; the projected population is 0.4 million less in mid 2028 and 0.9 million less in mid 2043.

But the report continues with a huge proviso:

National population projections do not attempt to predict the impact of political circumstances such as Brexit.

The Times appears to be ignoring the point that population projections have gone down since 2016. Project Fear in reverse, you might think. It also fails to mention that the projection takes no account of the effects of Brexit, no-deal or otherwise. In other words, the projections are less scary than they were in the year of the EU referendum, and in any event, if we leave the European Union, all bets are off. Why? Because Brexit, whichever version we adopt, will slow down the economy and most likely slow down immigration.

So why are we being urged to take note of these ‘staggering’ projections? Could it be because The Times wants to warn us what will happen if Parliament fails to back Boris Johnson’s deal? Until recently the paper adopted a relatively neutral stance over Brexit. It had columnists who have argued from either side of the debate – Iain Martin for Leave, for example, and Matthew Parris for Remain. But I’ve not been able to detect any obvious slant in the news coverage.

By contrast, it’s worth noting that the BBC, so often accused of bias by both sides of the Brexit divide, provides a more thoughtful analysis in this report.

One thing my media training – which I underwent many years ago – taught me was to look at sources and examine the motivations behind stories presented as news. In this case, it’s pretty clear to me that The Times, though far more subtly than, for example, the Daily Mail, is softening us up to accept Johnson’s dog’s dinner of a deal. And should there be a General Election in the coming months, you can be sure that it will come out for the Tories.

Not that I have a problem with that – after all, I don’t own the newspaper – though I’d rather die in a ditch than vote for Boris’s rabble. But just a warning that we should all sharpen our manipulation sensors, especially when it comes to claims that are likely to be trotted out in any future referendum or election.

The posters, Facebook ads and presumably the newspaper editors are primed and ready to go.

Conquest is one thing, subjugation quite another

I only know as much about Syria as the next reasonably-informed person. But I do know this. In an era of suicide bombers, IEDs and RPGs, it’s relatively easy conquer territory, but not so simple to truly subjugate it.

Donald Trump, whose military has been in Afghanistan for 18 years and in Iraq for 16, should know this. And so should President Erdogan of Turkey, whose incursion into Syria, accompanied as it is by well publicised atrocities. Turkey has had its fair share of atrocities to deal with on its own soil in recent years. If Erdogan thinks that his action in Syria will make Turkey safer from future attacks, he is surely deluded. He will also have to deal with attacks on his troops in Syria well after he has declared victory.

Has he not learned from the British in Palestine, the French and Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan, as well as his “ally” the United States? Clearly not. And then there are the consequences for the entire region of a resurgent ISIS.

Most wars start through miscalculations – either over-confidence by the attacking party or complacency by the defenders. And they end messily, with the human repercussions often lasting for as long as the wars themselves, if not longer. Think of Europe after the two world wars, and Iraq after Saddam’s three catastrophic wars. As for Syria, it could take a generation for peace and stability to return.

Leaving aside the moral dimension, Erdogan’s war is plain reckless, and will haunt his people long after he has left office. Those who could stop it – most notably Trump and Putin – are declining to do so, for reasons of perceived national interest. In Trump’s case, the interest may also be personal.

Shame on them. And don’t be surprised if the repercussions spill over on to American and Russian soil.

Brexit Derangement – Thoughts from the Brink

IMG_1992 (2)How best to describe the current turmoil in British public life? It’s as if we’ve taken to sticking fireworks in the national clothes drier, or stuffing all the contents of the fridge into the washing machine. The result: random explosions blowing the side off the house, or an unidentifiable brown sludge oozing all over the floor.

If I’ve been relatively quiet over the past few weeks, it’s because I’m finding it increasingly hard to take a coherent view of the chaos surrounding us both here and, not coincidentally, in the United States. As time goes on I begin to wonder who is becoming more unhinged: me or everyone else.

But for what it’s worth, here are some random thoughts that have emerged from my present, though hopefully temporary, state of derangement.

Let’s begin close to home. How to respond to the over-seventies in my golf club who know my position on Brexit and now “hate fucking politicians”, as one of them put it? Winding them up or not responding? My answer: calmly asking them who they expect to look after them when they get sick, and who will wipe their bottoms in their care homes once they’re no longer able to wield a seven-iron. Or asking them whether they would prefer to return to the golden days of pre-EU Britain, when we made planes nobody would buy, cars that didn’t work, indulged in strikes and three-day weeks, staged race riots and stacked rubbish in the streets. Or, in order to preserve civility, say nothing, because to argue with Brexit cultists is about as futile as disputing the existence of God in conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness? These days I prefer silence, punctuated with the occasional uncontrollable outburst that makes me sound like Dr Strangelove.

Next, how to pay for the refurbishment of the Houses of Parliament? Easy. If Boris resists the temptation of instigating another Reichstag Fire and using it to abolish the institution altogether, invite bids for sponsorship of Parliament and the great offices of state. As in The Trump House of Commons, the Putin Foreign Office and the Facebook Speaker. Or possibly the G4S Home Office, the Amazon Department of Trade and Industry, the Apple Ministry of Culture and the Goldman Sachs Exchequer. The money raised would be small change for these guys. Alternatively, you could have sponsored debates, as in “the Brexit Debate, sponsored by Marvel”, and make them available on pay-per-view. Further suggestions welcome.

This one’s for students of ancient history. Which prominent figure who contributed to the decline of the Roman Republic does Boris most closely resemble? Julius Caesar? Nah – Boris might have a plastic gladius in his toy box, but faced with an army of angry Gauls, he’d run a mile. Cicero? Closer. Our Prime Minister has the words, but he wouldn’t recognise a principle if it slapped him in the face. My answer: Publius Clodius Pulcher – a degenerate son of the ruling class who turned himself into a plebeian and caused untold grief to the ancien regime, when he wasn’t committing incest and violating sacred rituals by infiltrating female-only ceremonies dressed as a woman. To find out more about this interesting character, here’s a nice blog post, or read Robert Harris’s Cicero novels. Not that Boris has quite sunk to Clodian levels of depravity yet, but, as a classicist, he should recognise a fellow deplorable.

And how to react to the main political parties at their conferences making promises they have no way of knowing they can keep? Actually, that’s refreshingly normal, though the Conservative “promise” to crack nuclear fusion and provide us all with cheap electricity by 2040 would seem to have come from the outer edge of the Trumpian cosmos.

My message for Labour? By all means abolish private schools, but be aware that after Brexit there’s a good chance that few Brits will be able to afford the fees anyway, and you would be depriving the country of valuable income from all the Russian and Chinese parents who do have the money. And since the nation’s universities and health services are becoming increasingly dependent on income from abroad, why not ban foreign students and health tourism as well? Come to think of it, you’d be doing us all a favour if you’d nationalise Parliament.

Actually, I have a better idea. Let’s set up a National Hedge Fund, so that we can capitalise on the the falling pound, the plunging Euro, the devastated Irish economy, the collapsing German car industry and so forth. A good insurance policy for the nation, no? Why let Crispin Odey and his pals take all the spoils?

And finally, at least on the British front, lovely to see Sir David Attenborough at the launching of the research vessel named after him. But wait, didn’t the people vote for the ship to be named Boaty McBoatface in an advisory referendum, only for the government to overturn the said Will of the People? As a consolation they gave the chosen name to a submersible on the ship. Is that not a clear precedent for revoking Article 50, but letting Stoke-on-Trent leave the EU? I think this is a question to be referred to Baroness Spider and her Supreme Court colleagues.

Now, let’s briefly turn our attention to Donald Trump, supreme ruler of land, sea and air, source of universal truth about all things, slayer of the mainstream media and confirmed psycho.

Actually I have very little to say about him because all my email exchanges with Hillary Clinton have been retrospectively classified, and my previous less-than-complimentary ramblings have been locked up in a White House server along with all the other stuff of critical importance to US national security.

I can only add that I look forward to the sight of the helicopter taking him off, post-resignation, to a well-earned retirement at Mar-e-Largo after his pardon from President Pence. But I will feel a little sorry for all his associates who end up in jail, though perhaps Pence will pardon them too.

I hear, however that the Donaldissimo is predicting (or threatening?) civil war if he’s removed. Very similar to the dire predictions emanating from Boris Johnson’s ministers in the event that we’re sensible enough to call a halt to Brexit. Don’t great minds think alike?

All of which goes to show that politics rots the brain, and if things continue as they are much longer, I look forward to a pleasant stay in a secure institution.

Brexit: a quiet suggestion for Brussels


Just a sneaky thought about Brexit.

Nothing that has happened in British politics over the past few weeks convinces me that there is a better way of resolving the deadlock than a second referendum which includes as an option remaining in the European Union.

HOWEVER: a smart move on the part of the European Union, assuming that it still wants the UK as a member and a deal cannot be reached, would be to refuse to extend the leaving date beyond 31 October. Instead, it could make a unilateral declaration that if the UK wishes to rejoin the union, it can do so within the next year under the same terms as it enjoys today. In effect, we would be able retrospectively to revoke Article 50.

This would give us ample opportunity to taste the bitter fruit of a no-deal Brexit, and plenty of time to hold another referendum – not on whether to leave the EU, but on whether to return. If the predictions about the consequences of a no-deal exit come true, there would almost certainly be a widespread outbreak of buyers’ remorse, which would increase the pressure on whichever government is in power to think again.

Of course, reversing all the legislation that deals with Brexit would be no small exercise, and you can be sure that leavers, if things go badly, will blame the EU, the Tories, remainers and anyone but themselves for the chaos they have caused.

But a little carrot dangled by the EU might just be enough to persuade a majority of voters to return to the warm embrace of our erstwhile partners.

By this means the EU will be seen to have stood firm against what it sees as the unreasonable demands of the Brits, and the no-dealers will get their wish without having to respond to the EU’s offer, after which, thanks to the mess that follows, with a bit of luck they will never be a force in British politics again.

The last thing I want to see is a no-deal exit, but if such an event serves to convince the British people that they’ve been royally conned, a few months of grief might prove to have been worth it if we are then able to grab a lifeline back to the stability we shouldn’t have forsaken in the first place.

The big question is whether the EU, having been through considerable pain on their side, would welcome us back. Maybe. After potential waverers on its side have seen the grisly consequences of a disorderly exit, perhaps they would be less enthusiastic about life in the wilderness. On the other hand, a negotiated UK exit, if successful, might have the effect of providing a template for future defections.

Just a thought, nothing more.

Why we need more people like Dominic Cummings, even if we can’t stand them.

Depending on your political persuasion, Dominic Cummings is a genius (with evil as an optional qualifier), a political visionary or special adviser to the devil. What most people agree upon is that he has an unfortunate manner. I’ve never met him, so it’s not for me to comment on his personality. Others who have say that in his dealings with people he’s as subtle as a flying mallet. That’s certainly the impression you got from his portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War. And his behaviour in No 10 Downing Street would appear to bear out his reputation as a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly – a fool being anyone who doesn’t see things his way.

This is a shame, because we need people like Cummings in politics. Spiky, contrary, full of ideas. Grit in the oyster. If you look at his website, as I have, you will find that nestling within the acres of self-justifying blather, there are some good ideas. Red teams, for example, specifically established to challenge conventional thinking and knock over ill-conceived projects; more diversity in combined honours university degrees; the use of interactive technology to aid decision-making; introducing technology-assisted data modelling into the schools curriculum. And that’s just stuff gleaned from two or three of his voluminous blog posts.

What is unfortunate is that most of his opinions are rinsed with contempt – particularly for politicians, the civil service, the educational establishment. Anyone, in fact, with the power to prevent his ideas from coming to fruition. Not unusual, because these days contempt seems to be the only common currency in our public discourse.

What’s also evident from the blog posts I’ve read is the absence of any evidence of personal values, morality or empathy, as displayed by Nicholas Soames who, when interviewed about his expulsion from the Conservative ranks in Parliament at Cummings’ behest, said that his executioner, the Chief Whip, was a “nice man and a personal friend”.

It’s not for me to suggest Boris Johnson’s powerful adviser sits somewhere on the autism scale. As I said, I don’t know him. But judging by the number of enemies he has made in a very short time, he can hardly be described as a people person, and surely not someone with the leadership skills to bring people with him through persuasion rather than compulsion.

And isn’t democratic politics the business of persuasion, even if decisions made through democratic processes require a measure of compulsion at the end of the line? Unfortunately for Cummings and Johnson, we have not reached the end of the line, and their attempts to short-circuit the process appear to have failed, unless, of course – as some have claimed – this was part of the cunning plan to win the next election without the stigma of having failed to deliver Britain’s exit from the EU by October 31st.

Either way, much as I reject the political wagon to which Cummings has hitched himself, I do believe that there should be a place in politics for people like him, however disagreeable he may appear to those who have to interact with him. But I would no more put him in a leadership role than I would appoint Dr Strangelove as my chief of staff.

He belongs in one of his beloved Red Teams, employed to challenge the unchallengeable, demolish the consensus and force those who control our destinies to justify their proposals – publicly.

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