George Osborne: the Rake’s Progress

Anyone who has seen a James Bond film will be familiar with the words that Ernst Stavro Blofeld used before dispatching minions who had displeased him: ‘ You know the penalty for failure.’  The penalty was always death, whether it came in the form of Rosa Klebb’s poisoned toe-knife or a pool of piranha fish.  For most of us the penalty for failure at work isn’t so dramatic, but penalties there certainly are.  If you’re a social worker say, and you make a mistake or error of judgement, you can expect to have your career and your reputation destroyed and you will be lucky to work again.

If you’re a ‘failing’ school, and you don’t meet the latest arbitrary targets that the government of the day has imposed upon you, you can expect to be put into the purgatory of ‘special measures’ and have your every single action ruthlessly scrutinised by Ofsted.  The same applies in many other professions, particularly in the public sector, where micromanaged target-setting has become the stick that governments and their appointees use to whip the system into line – and privatise when it doesn’t fall into line.

It’s a very different matter at the top end, when it comes to politicians who perform what we still quaintly – and increasingly absurdly – refer to as ‘public service’.  Even if you are generous enough to  say that Tony Blair made an honest error of judgement over the Iraq war – and I’m not generous enough to say this – it was one of the most catastrophic errors of judgement that any British prime minister has ever made.   At the very least, it cast doubt over Blair’s judgement, yet he went on from that disaster to make more money than any British prime minister has ever made, much of it in the same region where he had demonstrated his incompetence and lack of knowledge and ability.

I used to wonder what people were paying Blair these incredible sums of money for.  It was obvious he was being rewarded for something, thought it wasn’t always clear what the reward was for.  But what  could he be saying that was worth £100,000 or more for a single speech, given that what he actually says in public isn’t very novel or insightful, and is often really quite banal?   I assumed it must be something to do with access, that paying Blair these sums was a way to get to network and get know to someone else.

Now I’m beginning to see things differently, after trying to take in the incredible new that George Osborne is now editing the Evening Standard.  I should make clear that I don’t have any respect for the Standard at all.  It’s a trashy rightwing newspaper that I only read for free on the tube, because my mobile server is so useless that you can’t connect to it underground.

But the fact that Osborne got this job is not good news. This is a man who was rich before he even took office, who inflicted pointless and brutal social cruelty on thousands of men and women in the name of a deficit-reduction dogma that his own party have rejected, who left the country with an even greater debt than when he took office, not to mention the calamity of Brexit.

Yet like Blair, he has gone on from strength to strength.  Since last summer Osborne has received £800,000 from speeches.  In the same week he has just got a new job of one day a week with an annual income of £650,000.  And now he has been given the job of editing the Standard by a Russian oligarch who he was already pally with, even though he has barely written a word and has never worked as a journalist.  And on top of all this, he’s still an MP.

Weird, isn’t it?   Except that it clearly isn’t weird at all.  They prosper because they belong to an en elite that is not governed by the rules that govern the rest of us.  That elite exists only for itself, in order to enrich its members and reward those who serve it. What looks like failure to the rest of us doesn’t look like failure to them.  What looks immoral to us looks moral to them.  They don’t even care about competence, success or failure.  Once you’re in, you’re in, and unlike Spectre there is no penalty for failrue. You can just keep rising as high as your friends and contacts can lift you.

Some may shrug and shake their heads at the remarkable progress of a man who has once again risen far higher than his abilities merit,  as if it’s just another of those 21st century beyond-satire things that doesn’t concern them.  But it does concern us. Because it’s  partly because people behave like this that we get Trump and Brexit, and why we might get Le Pen.  Democracies cannot prosper when their elected representatives behave like pigs in a trough and seem to have no real purpose or goal except the trough.

If politicians act so brazenly in their own material interests and use public office to gain admission to the global kleptocracy while the rest of society is squeezed and cut to the bone, then why trust any of them?   Why not trust someone who isn’t a politician or seems to be a regular guy – like Trump or Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage?  Or why not vote for them even if you don’t trust them just to have a change?

Because if democracy becomes a mockery, don’t be surprised if people choose to mock it in unexpected and sometimes self-destructive ways, and George Osborne’s unlikely progress is another sign that British democracy is in very bad shape.

Of course Georgie and his mates don’t care about this. They only care about how they are doing, and right now, they’re doing very well indeed.

Empire 2.0

In years to come, historians will look back at the ruins of the country that was once the United Kingdom and wonder what brought about its spectacular and stunning collapse. As they pick their way through the rubble,  they will eventually end up in the strange and barren period that we are now living through, in which there is almost nothing that we seem able to do except watch as one of the greatest collection of fools, frauds, fakes incompetents that has ever led the British state leads the country towards disaster with the gleeful insouciance of a drunk batsman tottering out to the wicket to take a wild swing at any ball that moves.

Yesterday, for example, Theresa May had the unbelievable gall to accuse Nicola Sturgeon of ‘playing politics’ with the country’s future, as if she would never dream of doing such a thing.   And today, the pitiful David Davis admitted that the government has no contingency plan for leaving the EU without a deal, even though Theresa May only recently insisted that leaving the EU with no deal would be better than leaving it with a bad deal.  How could she be so sure, if she hadn’t actually assessed what might happen?  We don’t know, and she obviously doesn’t know either. Yet that didn’t stop her promising to inflict on the country what she didn’t know, regardless of the consequences, and there is little indication that those who voted to leave want to know, or even know that they don’t know.

This is the terrifying dynamic that the country is now trapped in.  It unfolds day after day, gathering pace and idiocy with each passing week.  There appears to be nothing that anyone can do to stop it.  Today, a report from the construction industry predicted the loss of 200,000 construction jobs.  Since the Referendum there has been a 90 percent drop in the number of EU nurses coming to the UK and there are nowhere near enough nurses to replace them.

Try and stop this – or even try to allow parliament to actually look in detail at what the unelected PM is planning – and you are likely to be dismissed as a ‘Remoaner’ and ‘whinger’ or even a ‘traitor’ who has defied the ‘will of the people’.

With hindsight historians may be able to understand how this incredible disaster was allowed to happen.  And when they sift through the fanaticism, the arrogance, the glassy-eyed optimism, the flagwaving jingoism and the sheer stupidity and destructive malevolence of the political class that made it happen, they may well discover something called Empire 2.0.

This apparently is the name that Whitehall civil servants have given to the government’s proposal to reinvent the Commonwealth as a post-EU substitute for the EU.  Liam Fox, the sleazy spiv who should never have been allowed to take office yet has inexplicably become trade secretary, does not like this terminology, saying ‘It’s a phrase I find slightly offensively caricaturing. So it’s not a phrase I would use.’

No one could caricature Fox and his colleagues better than they do themselves, but Empire 2.0 is in fact a very good shorthand explanation for what is taking place.  Empire 2.0 sounds like Hawaii 5.0 and for these clowns it is just as thrilling, or ‘terribly exciting’ as Nigel Farage put it.   Because one of the main reasons why this country is now preparing to commit collective national suicide is because it once had an empire and it has still not got used to the fact that it does not have one.

Like the woman on Question Time who insisted that Britain ruled as  ‘the light of the world’ for ‘thousand of years’, the British political class, and a significant percentage of its population believes that the British empire was great and it cannot get used to the fact that it no longer great.

This is a country haunted and poisoned by imperial nostalgia and imperial amnesia.  It’s a country that has tried to cling onto greatness by stacking up nuclear weapons so that it can sit at the big table at the UN; above all by kidding itself that it was acting like ‘Greece to Rome’ in its servile and subordinate relationship with the United States and its willingness to ride shotgun with every lunatic American military adventure.

But despite all this, the country senses that it is not great as it once was or has it should be.  It remembers a time when the tables of the world ate with British steel, when gunboats were there to remind dodgy foreigners and governments trying to prevent their populations from becoming opium addicts of their duties and responsibilities.

Now we have to abide by the rules of an organisation – the EU – that we willingly joined, and so we tell ourselves that the EU is a new ‘Reich’ and that we are living under the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

Having foreigners tell us what to do is bad enough, but the real indicator of our fall from greatness is the presence of foreigners inside ‘our’ borders.  It was alright once for us to emigrate to any country that took our fancy and conquer countries that opposed us – immigrants were not supposed to come here, at least not in such numbers that they became noticeable.  They were not supposed to walk around our streets and SPEAK THEIR OWN LANGUAGES.

For too many of our countrymen, such things are unacceptable.   And that is why we had to leave the EU.  That’s why we want Empire 2.0 to restore our links with our old friends from the Commmonwealth who once belonged to Empire 1.0, because we are a ‘great trading nation’ and great trading nations can do what they like even if they can’t.

It’s no good pointing out that countries that replace a rational and thoughtful analysis of their actual possibilities and prospects in the real world with fantasies are not going to get very far.   You can try to explain that leaving the single market and falling back on WTO rules is a catastrophic error.  People like Fox, who believe in the ‘tremendous opportunities opportunities to importers and exporters from across the whole Commonwealth, a genuinely win-win situation’, will never listen.  They will never change their minds, never think twice, never allow even the shadow of a doubt to drift across the bright horizon.

They remember when we were great and they know we can be great again.  For them, every precipice is a chance to fly.   Unfortunately, too many people share the same belief, and they will probably continue to share it, long after we hit the ground, and the bubble of Empire 2.0 floats out of reach, and bursts above their heads.

 

Defending Free Movement

Last night I spoke at the launch meeting of the Alliance for Free Movement, hosted by Caroline Lucas at the Houses of Parliament.   The alliance is a broad-based movement of organisations, politicians, unions and NGOS, whose aim is to defend, uphold and extend the EU’s free movement rules at a time when the concept of free movement tends to be depicted more often than not as another of the many evils inflicted on the nation by the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

The initiative came out of a joint letter to the Guardian last month, of which I was one of the co-signatories.  Its stated aim is ‘to champion the right to live, work, study and retire abroad.  We want to defend and extend the freedom to move.  Migrants have not run down our public services, failed to build proper housing or caused a race to the bottom on wages or conditions.  These are results of political choices made by governments and corporations.’

Last night’s panel made these points in various ways.  Caroline Lucas spoke with her usual lucid eloquence about the importance of migration to the UK.  The barrister Colin Yeo spoke about the legal nightmare that is likely to unfold post-Brexit regarding EU nationals.   A Spanish nurse who has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years spoke movingly about  the insecurity which he and so many other EU nationals have felt since the referendum.  A speaker from Unison spelt out the dire consequences that are already unfolding for the NHS as European nurses, radiographers and other staff continue to leave the country in droves because of the poisoned post-referendum atmosphere – and all this at a time when British applications for nursing training places have dropped by 20 percent.

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Alliance for Free Movement launch meeting

These panel speeches were followed by sometimes abrasive but mostly thoughtful, passionate and considered contributions from the attendees.  Some had voted Leave and argued that the ‘hard Brexit’ that is now unfolding was not what they voted for. Some made the often-repeated point that ‘not all Leavers are racist.’  Others declared unequivocally that Brext was a racist vote and must be stopped.

These differences were not resolved – and could not be, in the time available – but they made very clear the political faultlines that left/progressive forces in this country will have to negotiate their way round if we are to find a way out of the dismal trajectory in which the country is currently trapped.

On the issue of free movement however, there should be no doubts or ambiguities. This is a principle that the left – in the broadest sense of the term – must fight for, even in its limited European form.  To abandon it would inflict enormous damage on British society – not to mention the millions of people whose lives are likely to be disrupted if Amber Rudd’s pledge to ‘end freedom of movement as we know it’ is realised.  It would be a giant step backwards and inwards and a capitulation to xenophobic reaction, fear and misinformation.

This is a campaign that can be won.  It has the potential to develop into a really broad coalition of unions, organisations and campaigners.  It can include employers and workers and can reach out across party lines.   Defending freedom of movement means rejecting the politics of scapegoating and fear.  It means recognizing the positive contribution that migrants make to the UK in many different ways.  It means upholding the right of workers to seek work in other countries and to have rights when they do so. It means giving our children and grandchildren the same opportunities that we now have to work, study and retire in Europe.

If we reject even the limited version of free movement enshrined in the EU’s four freedoms then we have very little chance of extending the same principle beyond the EU, and we are likely to entrench ourselves even deeper in our ongoing Trumpish dystopia of walls, fences and militarised borders.

That’s why I went to the meeting last night.   To sign up and find out more, visit www.forfreemovement.org

The Ministry of Fear

It isn’t often that I find myself agreeing with John Major, but in the post-Brexit era you often find allies in places where you would expect to find enemies – and vice versa. Certainly I can’t find much to quibble with about Major’s comments yesterday regarding the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe:

‘I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.’

Major is absolutely right, and it says something about the UK’s political class that it should take a former Tory prime minister to say this when there are so many other politicians who should have been have been saying what ought to be obvious to anyone not mesmerised by Ukip and the spectre of the ‘white working class voter.’  One thing is clear though – the British government is most definitely not giving these tendencies ‘short thrift’.

Quite the contrary, and there is no clearer barometer of the government’s willingness to pander to precisely the sentiments that Major denounces than that the British Home Office.   On Saturday the Home Office deportated Irene Clennel, a Singapore-born woman who has been living in the UK for 29 years and married to a British man for 27 of them.

Clennel has two grown-up children and one grandchild, and her husband is ill and needs a carer. But Clennel’s leave to remain had lapsed because of extended visits to Singapore to visit her sick mother, and because her husband’s income doesn’t reach the £18,000 threshold that allows foreign spouses to remain in the country.  So last month Clennel was detained at Dungavel,  and on Saturday she was driven to the airport with £12 in her pocket and no extra clothes,  without even being given the chance to speak to her husband and flown back to Singapore.

The Home Office justified this incredible act of cruelty with the morally inane bureaucratese that it always uses in such cases, that ‘ All applications for leave to remain in the UK are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. We expect those with no legal right to remain in the country to leave.’

When the Home Office behaves like this, and it often does, it tends to be criticised for its ‘insensitivity’ as though such things happen only through some misplaced bureaucratic overzealousness.   It would be interesting, but impossible, to study the individual psychology and motivations of the officials who make such decisions.  And to some extent it would be irrelevant, because such cases are not aberrations, but products of official policy.

No one would expect a government minister or Her Majesty’s officials to clap their hands and say ‘hurrah! One less immigrant!’ about Irene Clennel – not when the English language provides them with so much evasive verbiage about ‘individual merits’ and ‘immigration rules’ to disguise the malignant brutality of such decisions.

But the Clennel deportation is one more consequence of a political agenda whose single overrriding and obsessive objective when it comes to immigration is to remove as many people as possible – whoever they are and wherever they come from – so that the government of the day can boast how ‘tough’ it can be and add another statistic to reassure the public that its ‘concerns’ are being taken seriously.

This is how it’s been for years, but now it’s getting a lot worse, as anti-immigrant phobia rises to a new pitch of strident hysteria.  Already the Home Office has been sending out messages to EU nationals who have been here for decades that they should ‘make preparations to leave’.   Last month the Home Office was granted new powers that enable it to call into question the right of residence of EU nationals who don’t have comprehensive sickness insurance.  And yesterday Amber Rudd – yet another of the seemingly endless hard-faced gargoyles that Tory governments never seem to run out of – declared that ‘freedom of movement as we know it’ is now over.

The full implications of these developments are yet to become clear, but already they have struck fear and confusion into millions of people who now have no idea what is going to happen to them or to their family members, and are now expected to pass through the Home Office’s narrowing portal.   Let no one think that the Home Office does this because it is ‘insensitive’.  It does it because it is told to, by an arrogant, callous, and cynical government that simply does not give a damn about the human consequences of its decisions.

And the government does this in the knowledge that there are people up and down the country who actually want it to behave like this and will reward it with votes when it does.   So in this sense I have to disagree with John Major.  When it comes to ‘destroying civility and decency and understanding’ that is exactly what this monstrous government is doing, with the complicity of the British public.

We have allowed this government to pander to bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. We have allowed it to scapegoat minorities. We have allowed these tendencies to poison our political system to the point when we are increasingly incapable of seeing the men and women who come here as anything more than parasites seeking ‘our benefits.’

Until these attitudes change, we can expect a lot more cases like Irene Clennel in the coming months and years.  Because contrary to what John Major has said, that is the country we are,  and the Home Office is the mirror of who we are.