Category Archives: Conservative family values

Quentin Letts, apart, …

No: not an invitation to dismemberment (though it’s worth considering): the Daily Mail craparama apart, The Spectator manages the most one-eyed political sketch in town. And here’s the latest effort for Fisking.

Cuts, queues and death dominate PMQs

Lloyd Evans

Cuts, queues and death. These motifs dominated the New Year instalment of PMQs [1]. At the end of the last episode, shortly before Christmas, there were 12,000 patients lying in ambulances in hospital car parks. Two weeks later, according to Mr Corbyn, the figure stood at 17,000. Excellent news for Mr Corbyn because it sounds as if the queue has got nearly 50 per cent longer. But has it? [2] In fact, the 12,000 pre-Christmas patients have been treated and sent happily on their way [3]. The new figure represents the post-Christmas blow-out casualties [4]. But Mr Corbyn obscured this point. And he created the impression that a patient in a nice warm ambulance [5]  is in fact languishing in a torture-unit from which few emerge alive. Mrs May warned him against suggesting that the NHS ‘is failing everybody that goes to use it.’ [6]

Our system, she said, ‘has been identified as the number one system in the world’. By who? Health tourists? [7] She reeled off a list of rich-sounding countries, (the US, Sweden, Germany) with worse systems than ours. But which of these failed-states is about to copy the NHS from scratch? [8]

She turned to her favourite Labour-bashing device: Wales. The Labour government in Cardiff keeps fluffing its NHS targets. Mr Corbyn blamed Wales on the Tories. They’ve slashed Welsh budgets, he cried. Mrs May reproved him icily. ‘This government gave more money to Wales.’ [9]

Ian Blackford got similar treatment over Scotland. Mr Blackford is a devout foe of Scottish independence and he wants his country ruled by foreigners, any foreigners, just as long as they’re not English. His long-term goal is to secede from the UK and then complete the Anschluss with Brussels. He asked Mrs May about the Brexit bill, which he wants to scupper, and he added a side-swipe at Mrs May’s stinginess. The Tories, he said, ‘promise Scotland everything and deliver nothing.’ This irked Mrs May. She tartly reminded him that a bung of two billion smackers had been parcelled up and despatched to Scotland in the budget. [10]

Then the NHS reappeared. Emma Hardy said that patients in agony were being denied pain-killers because of ‘budget cuts’. Mrs May replied crossly that it was ‘plain wrong,’ to talk of ‘cuts’ when her government had raised NHS funding. [11]

Luciana Berger upped the stakes by claiming that ‘terminally ill cancer patients’ were having chemo sessions cancelled due to a lack of nurses. Accusations don’t get much graver than this. Her allegation is that the health department is sentencing patients to an early death. Mrs May denied that patients had had their chemo sessions withdrawn. [12] And that was that. Hardly a satisfactory exchange. MP: ‘You’re a murderer.’ PM: ‘No. I’m not. Next question.’ [13]

Mrs May claimed in her defence that cancer survival rates are increasing. Seven thousand patients are alive today who would otherwise have died, she said.

Andrew Murrison got up to shed some light on the ‘number one system in the world’. He’s a doctor, and a Tory. But he might have been reading from a Momentum press-release. Dr M told us that for heart attacks we are ‘in the bottom third’ globally. And for cancer survival ‘our closest match is Chile and Poland’. Which sounds terrible. But Dr M offered us a silver lining. A great brainwave has occurred to this eminent physician and he set forth his grand scheme to end the NHS’s troubles forever. He wants a royal commission on health and social care. [14] What an idea! And who might lead such an august panel of highly-paid experts?

Dr M didn’t quite go as far as to propose himself but his job application has been noted.

[1] Death? Well, that’s laugh -a-minute stuff at the Speccie. After BoJo and Tobes Young, and with Taki as a regular feature, what else is there to titivate?

[2] When I did O-level Maths, round about the mesolithic age, going from 11,000 to 17,000 was an increase of 65%. But mine wasn’t quite the knob-polishing private education enjoyed by Speccie types.

[3] Most may have been, But “bed-blocking” (presumably why Hunt got the extra handle to play with) is a fact of hospital life.

[4] FFS! Here we see the Speccie class-consciousness cutting in. Sickness and injuries have to be the natural consequences of an over-indulgent life-style.

[5] Confession time. 16th December 2017 I was diagnosed (incorrectly, it transpired) with suspected pneumonia. This resulted in an ambulance trip to my local hospital. From that experience, I can assure Lloyd Evans that, on a freezing night, an ambulance is not “nice” and not “warm”.

[6] Whatever Jezza’s failings, he wasn’t doing any such thing. On the contrary …

[7] That qualifies as the worst kind of Daily Mail or The Sun xenophobic sneer.

[8] None, Lloyd Evans, because in 2018 nobody, anywhere, would start from a 1947-8 “scratch”. The NHS has, fortunately, evolved.

Anyway, as I recall, the comparison hasn’t been identified as the No. 1 health system in the world. The comparison I remember is on the lines of “best-value health system in the world”. Check it out here: England is ranked sixth.

[9] It always helps to quote crude numbers, and ignore falling real value. In truth, all authorities, including the devolved assemblies, have seen real value cuts. It helps, of course, if you’re the DUP and have ten essential parliamentary votes to sell.

[10] It all depends on how you tell ’em. Compare:

the Scottish government’s direct funding from the Treasury could fall by as much as £1.6bn in real terms by 2020-21, as the UK government continues to pursue its deficit reduction plans

[11] Another one to check out. Emma Hardy had said no such thing. Her reasonable question was:

I have been contacted by 11 constituents who are frightened, many of them suicidal, because they have been told either by Hull clinical commissioning group or by East Riding of Yorkshire clinical commissioning group that their desperately needed pain infusion treatment will be stopped. This is the cruel reality of the NHS having to ration treatment due to funding cuts. Will the Prime Minister personally intervene to ensure that the Hull and East Riding CCGs review their decisions and guarantee my constituents the additional funding that will allow this treatment to be delivered?

Note Lloyd Evans neatly slithering from pain infusion treatment to a paracetamol tablet.

[12] What is going on at the chemotherapy at Churchill Hospital in Oxford is more complex than that. The Times had the original story, which is not being denied. Here’s the BBC version:

Theresa May was asked to apologise to cancer patients by Labour MP Luciana Berger, who challenged her over the memo at Prime Minister’s Questions earlier.

In response, she said the hospital had “made clear there are absolutely no plans to delay the start of chemotherapy treatment or reduce the number of cycles of treatment”.

Dr Weaver wrote the hospital did not have enough nurses trained to deal with medication at its day treatment unit.

“As a consequence we are having to delay chemotherapy patients’ starting times to four weeks,” he wrote.

[13] Total fantasy. If the Speccie can follow the actuality, just invent.

[14] The notion of a cross-party Royal Commission has been the Tory funk-hole for some weeks. Andrew Murrison wasn’t reading from any Momentum crib: it probably had been stuffed in his hand as a sheet-sheet by a Tory Whip.

This, ladeez and gennelmen, is what passes for “quality” journalism on the right wing.

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Filed under Conservative family values, health, politics, The Spectator, Times, Tories.

Ridiculous mouse

It was Horace, teaching The Art of Poetry (line 139, if you want it), who borrowed that from Aesop.

The Department for Transport, in turn, borrows from Horatius and produces a shiny new apologia on how, one day, the railways of England and Wales will be again the wonder of the age. Note Scotland had the sense to run their remaining network as an integrated unit, and are already expanding.

At one level it’s all about undoing some of the damage privatisation and franchising did:

sweeping proposals aimed at creating joined up teams running track and train will make the railway more reliable for passengers and ensure that it works as one to deliver for its customers.

Hint: that’s what we had before the “poll tax on wheels“.

At another level it’s a response to the McNulty (2011) and Shaw (2015) reports. The paper mills of the DfT grind slow — and also exceeding small. Having failed to electrify, there’s always the magical incantation: “digital”. Sure enough, here comes the fairy dust:

The vision also pledges to introduce digital rail – new technologies that have the potential to reduce crowding and improve train punctuality for passengers – across more of the country.

The DfT is so advanced in thinking for the “digital” age, when one accesses the document, one is warned:

This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology

Wait for it! — when we arrive at paragraph 2.23 we get “schemes”:

Rail services have the potential to unlock housing growth, as part of a wider transport network. New connections and stations can support locally-led development and help deliver more housing. There are also strategic opportunities to change local transport patterns, and provide communities and people with new opportunities.

Away we segue into a  surfeit of subjunctives and hypotheticals:

  • a new station could provide direct rail links
  • also potentially generate additional housing opportunities in high-demand locations
  • Construction is expected to start in late 2017 and to be completed by 2021. (The back-end of November is “late 2017”: is it happening yet?)
  • a station has the potential to unlock 7,500 jobs and 1,500 homes
  • the challenges of poor East-West connectivity need to be addressed (rather like the Hull-Leeds-Manchester-Liverpool corridor, which ought to be national priority #1 — but won’t be as long as it lies outside London and the South-East commuter belt).

More subjunctives (“may run”) and hypotheticals (“possibles”): The Times has identified the proposals to re-open lines Beeching axed:

From the top there:

  1. The Ashington, Blyth and Newcastle (ABT) line is there, running freight (providing essential links for the Alcan plant and the waste disposal at Butterwell), and Northumberland County Council has primed the pump with £5 million. Much of the expected cost is in peripherals: new stations, car-parks (there’s an irony!), and connections to other existing transport links (including Shanks’s pony and cycling).

2. Skipton to Colne is less than a dozen miles. It is abut as logical a link, a no-brainer, as could be imagined:

 

This one was not even proposed for closure by Beeching: it happened, none the less, in 1970. The Leeds and Bradford Railway saw the potential as early as 1848, and built it. Several studies (in 2003 and 2007 to my knowledge) have suggested considerable benefits. The route is protected by the planning authorities. Railtrack have agreed, but could make no progress without external finance. The whole scheme is complicated by the road lobby cooking up a route which parallels the railway: odd, that — a need for a road link where the basis for a rail one is staring all in the face.

Anyway, previous announcements — most recently a squeak before the June 2017 Election — amounted to more than a wink-and-a-nod.

3. The Kings Norton link is beyond me. There’s already a link into Birmingham, via Edgbaston. At first I wondered was this an error for the Kings Norton next to Leicester Airfield. Could it be because the housing developments in this patch are in desperate need of a fillip? Three Labour constituencies, all reasonably safe, cover the ground — so the “party advantage” motive doesn’t apply. On the other hand, the West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, is a Tory, and has been raising smoke about transport expenditure in his fiefdom being a third, per-capita, of London.

4. Wisbech to March — oh, but this one could be fun!

The Wisbech to Outwell stretch never was more than a tramway:

Once a bus service arrived, the passenger line was closed — and that was as far back as 1927. The line functioned for agricultural produce until Beeching. Because the whole thing was so ramshackle, rustic and “quaint”, it has been a staple for model railway builders.

What is being talked of here is the “Bramley Line”. This wasn’t a Beeching cut so much as a shrivelling of the Fen links: this one survived for freight until the turn of the Millennium, because of the Metal Box and Nestlé factories (the latter did pet-foods, and seemed to me to specialise in odd smells). It’s all of — what? — eight miles. Re-opening would be more about overspill housing from Cambridge and Peterborough than much else.

Relevant or not, South-East Cambridgeshire is a relatively safe Tory seat. There was a sniff of rampant UKIPpery none too long ago, which provoked warm utterances from David Cameron for local development and investment.

5. The “Varsity Line” between Oxford and Cambridge should never have been closed. It wasn’t on Beeching’s list. Long stretches remain in active use. The main “missing link” is between Cambridge and Bedford, where — criminally — housing developments have been permitted over the rail route. Since 2010 there have been repeated announcements and promises of government funding — so this is yet another iteration.

Look carefully at that sketch map, and spot Verney Junction. Those who, like me, still dote on John Betjeman may recall this was where he found the end of his Metroland:

The houses of Metro-land never got as far as Verney Junction.
Grass triumphs, and I must say I’m rather glad.

Until 1936 it was possible for the rustics of Lord Verney’s estate at Clayton House to take the Metropolitan Railway all the way to Baker Street. Which also explains that pseudopod of the London Underground map which still extends into (nay, invents) Zones 8,9, and 10.

This is another case where housing is a significant factor. Reopening the route makes the Bletchley-Bedford stretch an obvious candidate to become a major development, up to city size. With houses at Verney Junction. And in an essentially Tory backyard, too.

6. Portishead to Bristol amounts to re-opening just over three miles of track. Since 2009 Network Rail has been muttering about doing the business, and MetroWest have it as a work-in-progress. All that is required is sorting out a level-crossing at Ashton Vale and building the new station at Harbour Road in Prtishead. Since the alternative is some very heavy improvements to the A369 into Bristol, this again represents a triumph of common sense over numbskullery.

7. Uckfield to Lewes, the Wealden Line,  came close to agreement as far back as 2008. Since 2013 (as a spin-off from the ConDem coalition) there have been real moves to “do something”: government urged Network Rail into motion, the station site at Uckfield was bought back from (believe it!) the residuary British Rail Board.

Currently 42 miles (by road) from Lewes to Westminster takes an hour and a quarter by train. The truly-astounding thing here is that the natives of  East Sussex have not risen in righteous revolt against Southern Rail. Even so, the rumblings of discontent along the whole Costa Geriatrica are impacting on traditional party loyalties — and that’s not good for Tories.

8. Exeter to Okehampton, last but not least.

Another one that has me puzzled. As I recall, this service — the Dartmoor Railway — was to be re-opened in 2010. Although passenger services ended in 1972, there were Sunday excursions after 1997.

What would make total sense is restoring the link from Okehampton to Bere Alston, which creates a second route to Plymouth and the South-West. That was seriously touted as the alternative when the line at Dawlish was washed away in February 2014.

So the sting in the tail is that the alternative route to the South-West, through Okehampton could threaten the South Devon line, were there to be more bad weather. Even now maintaining the Dawlish stretch needs half-a-million a year, and services are liable to suspension in bad weather at high tide.

I started with Horace’s “ridiculous mouse”. I conclude by marvelling that Chris Grayling, the disaster to befall one government department after another, has got away with this pip-squeak of a policy announcement.

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Filed under Conservative family values, railways, Times, Tories.

Wednesday, 13th September, 2017

Business of the day:

Getting books back on the shelves. Oddly, they fitted neatly until I tried to sort them a bit more logically. Half of Irish history is yet in a pile on the floor.

An hour spent untangling the spaghetti of a Mac, three hard drives, a CD-ROM, a printer, three assorted iPods, an iPad, a speaker system … eleven power points in use, off two wall sockets. The impossible we do on a regular basis. Miracles (why won’t the Big Bastard iTunes back-up show as connected?) have taken a trifle longer.

Book of the day:

Well into le Carré (page 143 of 264). Must have had a sleepful night.

Gripe of the day:

That same le Carré dust-cover.

It is oh-so-arty matte black. The result is it retains the imprint of every finger that holds it.

Quote of the day:

The day is still young, but I doubt anything is going to top this (Ed Caesar interviewing Gids Osborne for Esquire):

Osborne’s animus against May is complicated in origin — personal, political, ideological, tactical — but purely felt. When I met him at the Standard this past spring, he was polite enough about the prime minister. But according to one staffer at the newspaper, Osborne has told more than one person that he will not rest until she “is chopped up in bags in my freezer”.

Ear-worm of the day:

September in the rain. Problem is the internal sound-track keeps switching from the best (Dinah Washington) to the merely good (Julie London).

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Filed under Apple, Conservative family values, George Osborne, John le Carré

How socially-prejudiced is that?

Yesterday our local political discourse was enhanced by an otherwise-unremarkable Tory back-bencher [*]

A Conservative MP has been suspended from the party after it emerged she used a racist expression during a public discussion about Brexit.

Anne Marie Morris, the MP for Newton Abbot, used the phrase at an event in London to describe the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.

She told the BBC: “The comment was totally unintentional. I apologise unreservedly for any offence caused.”

The Conservative Party later confirmed she had had the whip withdrawn.

Announcing the suspension, Theresa May said she was “shocked” by the “completely unacceptable” language.

“I immediately asked the chief whip to suspend the party whip,” she said in a statement.

I was much taken by Stephen Bush (of the New Statesman) instantly producing a 26-point check-list, notably this bit:

10. How on earth do you become an MP while being so stupid as to use the N-word at a public event?
11. I mean, surely, even if you are an honest-to-God, white sheet-wearing KKK racist, your basic self-preservation instinct kicks in and goes “Hmm. Wait a second. I wonder if this might possibly backfire?”
12. I mean, come on, aren’t these the same people who go on about political correctness gone mad?
13. Anne Marie Morris presumably had to defeat at least one other person to be selected as the Conservative candidate.
14.Imagine how rubbish you must be to lose to someone who uses the word “n****r” at a meeting in 2017.
15. Anne Marie Morris is 60.

Some of the follow-ups have come close to that. There was Paul Waugh’s Waugh Zone for HuffPo, which deserves repetition:

Given the damage done, it’s hard to see how Morris can regain the Tory whip, no matter what the ‘investigation’ by Tory campaigns HQ concludes. Which raises the issue of whether she will be booted out for good, and whether she would quit to trigger a by-election. Her majority in her west country seat is 17,000.  But as this year has taught everyone, electoral norms can be upended.

Morris had already been forced to distance herself from her electoral agent and partner Roger Kendrick last month, after he claimed “that the crisis in education was due entirely to non-British born immigrants and their high birth rates’.” Kemi Badenoch, the Tory MP for Saffron Walden, told the Telegraph she spoke to the Chief Whip “to express my dismay, and I am pleased that decisive action has been taken”. Maidstone MP Helen Grant said she was “so ashamed” that a fellow Tory could use the phrase without knowing its history (and it’s an awful history) or impact.

[*] Lest we forget, Matt Chorley, for The Times Red Box categorised the lady:

Anne Marie Morris – who until this point was best known in the Commons for waving a sling around while wearing Deirdre Barlow’s glasses – used the n-word yesterday at a public meeting.

All of which stirred the Redfellow Hippocampus to two thoughts:

1. How far we have come in my lifetime.

I became politically active in the 1960s — by which I mean I discarded the political attitudes I inherited, and adopted an alternative set. Whether that also means I “started to think for myself” is more debatable.

What did shock was what happened in the 1964 General Election for the Smethwick constituency. It wasn’t that the Tory — against the national swing — took the previously Labour seat. It was how it was achieved. There have been any number of re-drafts of that bit of unpleasantness. At the time it was generally accepted that

  • there was effectively a colour-bar being operated for social housing in the borough, in pubs, youth clubs and social centres;
  • that, officially or not, the Tory campaign was sustained by propaganda such as the leaflet (right) — note that it comes without the “imprint” required by electoral law;
  • that Harold Wilson was entirely justified in declaring the elected Tory a parliamentary leper. Many Tories were deeply uncomfortable about the elected MP as a fellow: even Enoch Powell (whose “rivers of blood” speech came two years later) refused to campaign with him.
  • that the local Trade Union branches and whatever were not beyond reproach.

In our innocence, we — and I include myself explicitly — believed such horrors had gone away. As if …

2. Just how racist is our language?

Put the woodpile (above) aside.

We could quibble about “nitty-gritty” (and many have done). Indeed, almost any use of “black” and “white” could be construed as a racist offence, if one was so determined.

And then there is (sharp intake of breath) “calling a spade a spade”. However that one dates from 1542, and Nicholas Udall translating Erasmus Apophthegmes ii. f. 167:

Philippus aunswered, yt the Macedonians wer feloes of no fyne witte in their termes but altogether grosse, clubbyshe, and rusticall, as they whiche had not the witte to calle a spade by any other name then a spade.

Erasmus, in turn, was translating Plutarch’s Greek into Latin, and hesitated over a literal rendering of to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough, which some ascribe to Aristophanes. His hesitation might plausibly because “fig”, as the Oxford English Dictionary has as the second meaning:

Obs.
A contemptuous gesture which consisted in thrusting the thumb between two of the closed fingers or into the mouth. Also, fig of Spain, and to give (a person) the fig.

Which Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Pistol (Henry V, Act III, scene vi):

Pistol: Die and be damn’d! and figo for thy friendship!
Fluellen: It is well.
Pistol: The fig of Spain!
Exit

Preferring the epicene, Udall goes for the horticultural reference. The racial slur dates only from the 1920s, and apparently from New York, and specifically Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1927).

And one more to finish

What about “beyond the Pale”?

Note the capital “P’. Any delineated space could be a “pale”. In Ireland it had a specific connotation:

The area of Ireland under English jurisdiction (varying in extent at different times between the late 12th and 16th centuries, but including parts of modern Dublin, Louth, Meath, and Kildare).

By implication, anything “beyond the Pale” would be among the wild Irish. As one who has frequently been called a “West Brit”, I know we have our archipelagic variant of Crow Jim.  Now consider all those places with a district “Irishtown” or even “Irish Street”. Without exception, they will be less favoured, and more down-market. In medieval Dublin, Irishtown was the bit outside the city walls, down to the slob-lands of the River Dodder. Only last week, the Irish Times had this:

A plague of flies of “biblical proportions” has descended upon the Dublin 4 suburbs of Sandymount, Ringsend and Irishtown, according to residents and local businesspeople.

Labour Senator Kevin Humphreys said he had received “hundreds” of complaints from locals in recent days over the fly infestation, which has forced people to keep their windows shut and resulted in the closure of some businesses.

Tony “Deke” McDonald, who runs Deke’s Diner at the Sean Moore Road roundabout in Ringsend, said the infestation was the worst he had ever seen.

“It started around four or five days ago with a swarm of biblical proportions. People would be used to flies in the summer, but I’ve been running the diner 17 years next week, and I’m 30 odd years in the area, and I’ve never seen the like of it. There [were] hundreds of them.”

It didn’t take more than moments for Dublin wit to crack in, saying Ringsend and Irishtown deserved all they got, for social-climbing and pretension to post-code D4.

Then there’s Louis MacNeice describing:

…. Smoky Carrick in County Antrim
Where the bottle-neck harbour collects the mud which jams

The little boats beneath the Norman castle,
   The pier shining with lumps of crystal salt;
The Scots Quarter was a line of residential houses
   But the Irish Quarter was a slum for the blind and halt. […]

I was the rector’s son, born to the anglican order,
   Banned for ever from the candles of the Irish poor;
The Chichesters knelt in marble at the end of a transept
   With ruffs about their necks, their portion sure.

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Filed under Belfast, bigotry, Britain, Conservative family values, culture, Dublin., Ireland, Irish Times, New Statesman, Northern Ireland, Paul Waugh, politics, prejudice, Quotations, Racists, Tories., underclass

Another place with “too much history”

Yesterday to Durham and The Big Meeting (133rd iteration).

The Lady in my Life and myself are there, dead in front of the microphones, and about four rows back. The last time I went was mid-1960s, and the main speaker was Harold Wilson. There were still coal-mines working then. Durham’s very last was Monkwearmouth, where the last shift was worked on 10th December 1993. The site, today, is the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s home ground.

In 1937 George Orwell was factually stating the importance of coal:

Practically everything we do, from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, and from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace coal is needed; if war breaks out it is needed all the more. In time of revolution the miner must go on working or the revolution must stop, for revolution as much as reaction needs coal. Whatever may be happening on the surface, the hacking and shovelling have got to continue without a pause, or at any rate without pausing for more than a few weeks at the most. In order that Hitler may march the goose-step, that the Pope may denounce Bolshevism, that the cricket crowds may assemble at Lords, that the poets may scratch one another’s backs, coal has got to be forthcoming. But on the whole we are not aware of it; we all know that we ‘must have coal’, but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but I still need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just ‘coal’ — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it. You could quite easily drive a car right across the north of England and never once remember that hundreds of feet below the road you are on the miners are hacking at the coal. Yet in a sense it is the miners who are driving your car forward. Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.

It is not long since conditions in the mines were worse than they are now. There are still living a few very old women who in their youth have worked underground, with the harness round their waists, and a chain that passed between their legs, crawling on all fours and dragging tubs of coal. They used to go on doing this even when they were pregnant. And even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.

Eighty years on, 21st April 2017, Britain went a day without coal, while the lights stayed on.

There have been no active coal-mines, and no coal-miners in the County Palatine this quarter-century. But the Durham Miners’ Gala, the Big Meetin’, goes on, and this year was bigger and brassier than ever.

Durham has too much history for its own good. That’s an expression I have seen applied to Ireland, to the island of Cyprus and to Naples in recent times. It has degrees of truth in every case. In Durham, though, the history is close enough to touch:

… the miners who died in the many pit disasters of the Durham coalfields.

They number thousands, including 164 at Seaham in 1880 and 168 at Stanley in 1909, and are commemorated by a memorial in Durham Cathedral, a spectacular Romanesque landmark that this autumn celebrates the 25th anniversary of its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the historic city. Next to the memorial to the victims of pit disasters is a book of remembrance that the Dean of the Cathedral, the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, was at pains to point out to me. “Here’s one 15 years of age,” he said. “J E Scott. Died at Shotton [in 1953]. This is a really poignant place.”

The Dean talked of “the big meeting”, the annual miners’ gala in July when the former mining communities pour through the city behind their colliery banners and wind their way up to the cathedral for the miners’ service. “It’s a kind of echo of the Middle Ages when people would flock into this place and believe they were part of something bigger than they were,” said the Dean.

Any rail journey takes one past acres of rough scrub that not too long ago were coal-tips. Railway yards and sidings stretch far, far further than any conceivable modern need. Few villages lack what once was (and may still be marked as) the Miners’ Welfare hall. In the streets and pubs one brushes past ageing faces and limbs, marked with the blue of coal-dust tattooed under the skin.

Scott and Scot

Yesterday, then, to Durham’s Racecourse. The site stretches past the Wear river-bank, and to its other side the massive ridge (as above):

Well yet I love thy mix’d and massive piles,
Half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot …

For sixty-odd years that tag has come to my mind, and mouth, every time I have seen an image or the reality of Durham’s great, looming cathedral. I somehow knew it was Walter Scott. That may be because anything so romantic had to derive from the same source that gave us swash-and-buckle, the Errol Flynn version of Robin Hood and even Tony Curtis’s fictional “Yonda lies the castle of my fodder“. Precisely locating the reference isn’t quite that easy. To save others the sweat, it is found in Canto Third of Harold the Dauntless of 1817.

For contemporary tastes, Scott’s romantic world contains too much “hied me home” or

Wrinkled his brows grew, and hoary his hair

That’s unfair in this case, because the 1817 poem is prefaced by a more-cynical Scott. He deplores O tempora! O mores, as Cicero did Against Catiline: —

Ennui! — or, as our mothers call’d thee, Spleen!
To thee we owe full many a rare device;
Thine is the sheaf of painted cards, I ween,
The rolling billiard-ball, the rattling dice,
The turning-lathe for framing gimcrack nice;
The amateur’s blotch’d pallet thou mayst claim,
Retort, and air-pump, threatening frogs and mice,
(Murders disguised by philosophic name,)
And much of trifling grave, and much of buxom game.

At the moment, the imposing central tower of the Cathedral Church of Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham has scaffolding all round, and wears a square white cook’s bonnet.

The proceedings

When we finally came to the speechifying, even that have to be after a brass-band rendering of “The Miner’s Hymn”, Gresford:

The story behind that is told here:

Written by a former miner, Robert Saint, to commemorate the Gresford pit disaster in 1934 it has been played at mining events ever since; most notably at the famous Durham Miners’ Gala.

What is too easily forgotten is that, in the days of working pits, the attendees at the Gala would have held silence to that every year and recalled the death-toll.

My first teaching job was in a boys’ grammar school in the County Durham. Male teachers in an all-male (with one brave exception) staff-room constitute a cynical lot. So, morning break, 21st October 1966, was eerily quiet. The news was coming through of the Aberfan disaster and the immolation of Pantglas Primary school. By no coincidence, Alan Plater’s Close the Coalhouse Door (originally intended as a BBC radio play) went on stage in April 1968:

A few years back I was at the packed Richmond Theatre for Sam West’s revival (lightly trimmed by Lee Hall). The same evocative, eye-pricking power was there. All the way from Thomas Hepburn and Peter Lee.

It’s the same tradition as Abide With Me before the Cup Final. It’s very much the mood of “those no longer with us”. But for industrial workers, especially in the heaviest industries, it’s also “those taken from us because of managerial mistakes and incompetence”.

This year the Miner’s Hymn had added plangency:

Not just an Elf

There is a message here; and it’s the box that most of the speakers at the Big Meeting ticked.

Disasters like Gresford in 1934, Aberfan in 1966 and the Grenfell Tower this year are “accidents-waiting-to-happen”. They derive from decisions taken, or studiously ignored, by bureaucratic processes beyond the control of us ordinary folk. What we have to protect us, to some extent, are Health and Safety Regulations. That is, of course, if they are policed and enforced.

Even then there are arrogant twazzles who mock them:

“We could, if we wanted, accept emissions standards from India, America, and Europe. There’d be no contradiction with that,” Mr Rees-Mogg said.

“We could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here. There’s nothing to stop that.

“We could take it a very long way. American emission standards are fine – probably in some cases higher. 

“I accept that we’re not going to allow dangerous toys to come in from China, we don’t want to see those kind of risks. But there’s a very long way you can go.”

The MP’s comments came in the context of a discussion about trade deals with other countries following Brexit.

Said twazzle now fancies himself to chair the highly-important Treasury select committee, and stamp Asian labour practices, and US water standards on post-Brexit Britain.

Too much history? Or not enough yet?

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Separated at the Vicarage?

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May 19, 2017 · 9:31 am

Hell upon earth

Two ways into this:

  • I’ve not a regular with The Guardian‘s Long Read. It’s there. I’m glad it’s there. I’m delighted that at least one British quality daily has a commitment to serving its readers with more than pap. It’s just that — well, err — there’s only so much worthy fretting one can do in one short day. But today is the exception …

My grandfather, my great-grandparents, and even their parents originated from Wisbech, deep in the Fens. For two generations they are “AgLabs”, the staple agricultural labourers in many family trees. Then Great Grandad Matthew, who was an apprentice blacksmith, lost an arm, became a “letter-carrier”, and rose to Post Master.

  • Furthermore, I grew up in North Norfolk — the contrived town motto (even Latinised) was “between land and sea”. That was a statement of fact: the economy of Wells came from whelking and farming, with a bit of bunce from a few short weeks of summer visitors. In the 1950s the farm workers’ strikes of the previous generation were still painfully remembered.

So I’ve just spent the length of three cups of tea, reading with fascinated horror Felicity Lawrence’s dissection of The gangsters on England’s doorstep, a recital of how Wisbech (and other small towns in the profound depths, well away from the metropolitan consciousness) have become infested with crookery and thuggery imported from eastern Europe:

A web of several competing eastern European gangmaster operations hiring out migrant labourers seemed to be connected to an increase in crime — although it was politically charged to say so. There had been a spate of apparent suicides among young eastern European men who had come in search of work — five within a year between 2012 and 2013. Three of the dead had been found hanging in public places around the town; one of them had been recovered from a small park near the BP garage next to graffiti that translated as: “The dead can’t testify”.

These were not the only disturbing deaths: a 17-year-old Latvian girl had disappeared from Wisbech in the summer of 2011, and her partially clothed, decomposed body was only discovered five months later, on the Queen’s Sandringham estate. A Lithuanian courier was killed in an arson attack on the van in which he was sleeping. There had also been reports of knife attacks by migrants on migrants but victims would disappear or turn out to have been using false identities.

The “locals” have felt their only way to fight back was to make grumbling noises and vote UKIP:

Most of us do not see the brutal parallel universe at the heart of the mainstream economy. But in the Fens, it has been highly visible – along with the transnational organised crime running a part of it. This has made people very angry. Now they want out of Europe – more than two–thirds of voters in Wisbech’s parliamentary constituency said in a 2014 survey that they would favour the UK leaving the EU.

Lawrence, though, sees beyond the cleavage in Fenland society, to look to fundamental causes:

From the late 1980s on, new technology allowed employers to eliminate much of the financial risk from their end of the chain. Supermarkets, for example, only reorder stock when a customer buys an item and its barcode is scanned, generating an instruction to their suppliers to replace it by the next day. Orders can double or halve within 24 hours, so workers to process and pack the goods are called in at short notice. This reduces costs and increases profits, since businesses no longer have to keep inventory or pay for full employment. Instead they have outsourced labour provision to agents or gangmasters. Agriculture and food processing pioneered this lean approach to business, but its zero-hours practices have spread to other sectors – to care homes, catering and food service, hotel work, cleaning, construction, and personal services such as nail bars and car washes.

Earlier waves of migration brought foreign workers to other East Anglian towns, but the availability of cheap housing has drawn gangmasters more recently to the Wisbech area. The last census of Wisbech in 2011 put the population at around 25,000 but officials accept that it is now probably nearer 30,000, with about 10,000 of those people recently arrived foreigners. The size of the private rental market doubled in a decade to more than 2,000 properties in 2015. Houses of multiple occupancy (HMOs) – the gang-run houses where new migrants mostly live – now account for a substantial percentage of housing stock. Government agencies trying to reach vulnerable migrant groups visited around 500 homes in the year from January 2014. By then, three of Wisbech’s wards had become some of the most deprived areas of the country.

Her article painstakingly traces the central villains’ progress from running labour gangs, to slum-landlording, to money-laundering, to exploitation, to theft, to prostitution and fake marriages, to … what else? When the nasties came to court:

The trials conjured up a nightmare of Fenland life, where there were no rules where you expected them to be, and when rules did exist, there was no one to enforce them.

Note that: no one to enforce them:

There were also only three housing officers for the whole Fenland district council to carry out inspections at the time – the council had suffered a 37% cut in its budget since 2010. […]

HMRC had just 142 national minimum wage inspectors for the whole country. According to the government’s migration advisory committee, this means that the average business, statistically, should expect a visit from an inspector once every 250 years. Unions that might have overseen conditions in fields and factories in the past are in decline. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has lost staff, having had its budget slashed over the course of the last parliament by 20%.

I’ve written about the causes of all this before. It’s not just the “cuts” (though they are bad enough). It is more, much more to do with the savage assault on workers’ protection over the years. I was making these points eight years ago, and tracing the causes back to a root. Allow me to dig up that oldie (slightly updated):

Norfolk-born, Norfolk-bred ..

Malcolm’s alter ego originated in Wells-next-the-Sea, which in those distant days enjoyed the privilege of a Labour MP.
In 1945 Eddie Gooch, of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, displaced the squirarchical Tommy Cook, though the radical tradition had been there even before Noel Buxton took the seat for Labour back in 1929.

The North Norfolk seat later, in 1964, was inherited by Bert Hazell, then President of the NUAW.  Bertie survived into his 102nd year, to die in 2009 the longest-living former MP of recent times.

It was always, sneeringly, implied that Eddie Gooch’s and Bert Hazell’s tenures of the constituency were helped by the local farmers who voted to keep them at Westminster, rather than causing them problems through the NUAW. That canard ignores the local tradition of radicalism.

The years the locust ate

Après Bertie, le déluge.

The complexion of the constituency changed. Employment on the land fell rapidly. That also drained much of the bitterness that had persisted since the agricultural depression of inter-war years, and the farm-workers’ strikes of 1923 and 1926. Moreover, the second-homers started to arrive. Added to which, North Norfolk is now home to the largest “retired” percentage of the national population.

All conspired so that for the next two decades, the ’70s and the ’80s, the North Norfolk constituency was the fiefdom of Ralph Howell.

Howell, like Peter Mandelson, was one to whom taking an instant dislike saved a deal of time.

He was xenophobic, rabid, a Thatcherite before the Lady, an apologist for white racist régimes in Africa, and a supporter of the Turks in Cyprus.

He was instigator of the “Right to Work”, which sounds well but (in his terms) amounted to a curious, even Stalinist notion that the unemployed should be conscripted, either into national service or be otherwise deployed by the state. Howell had come close to defining “Workfare”.

Yet, he had saving graces: a good war-record, served his constituents conscientiously, was afraid of nobody (even his own Whips): a self-made (and proudly so) agri-businessman.

Reaping what the Thatcherities sowed

Wisbech didn’t get into this situation willingly. But this situation has been willed.

As Lawrence reminds us:

The Agricultural Wages Board, which set out employment terms for field workers, was abolished in 2013. The EU working time directive aims to prevent workers doing dangerously long hours, but the UK allows an opt-out, seeing it as a burden on business. The pressure on large producers to cut costs – one of the key drivers of labour exploitation – is often blamed on supermarkets squeezing their margins. A recommendation by the competition authorities in 2000 that this excessive buying power be countered by a groceries adjudicator took 13 years to be implemented. The adjudicator only acquired the power to impose penalties in 2015, and has yet to do so.

Liberalising trade rules and financial flows has enabled the free movement of goods and capital across Europe – and, with them, people. But while World Trade Organisation rules prescribe global hygiene standards in minute detail, they are largely silent on the social and labour conditions in which the goods are produced.

A complex web of small rules widely obeyed – from paying your tax to insuring your car, to giving workers proper breaks – are the threads that weave a democratic social contract and a protective state. Many people in Wisbech have become more rightwing, in protest at what they see. The collapse of totalitarian structures of state control in former-Soviet eastern Europe has combined with a shrinking of state in the west. This shrinking of the state has created the vacuum into which organised crime has rushed.

I’m sure “Sir” Ralph Howell would approve of much of all that. So, ironically for the folk of Wisbech, would UKIP (but can’t and won’t say so locally).

There are remedies, and obvious ones:

  • ensure that agencies are properly resourced. In the Fenlands the “cuts” are not just financial: they are also human lives, and deaths. Lest we forget:

    A police force that handed over the bulk of its back-office functions to the private sector now spends the lowest amount per head of population on policing in England and Wales, a report has said.
    Lincolnshire Police has slashed its spending by nearly a fifth or £5 million per year, equal to the cost of 125 police officers. 
    The police force cut their budget through a deal with security firm G4S, transferring several administrative departments over to the private firm.

  • with those resources, beef up the enforcements of housing conditions, “fair rents”, over-crowding and minimum wage.
  • The “light-touch” regulation of gangmasters has clearly failed. In the light of what Lawrence’s article shows, read between the lines of this self-exculpation by (oh, the irony!):

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Modern Slavery and Organised Crime (Karen Bradley)

The GLA [Gangmasters Licensing Authority] is an organisation which regulates the supply of labour to the farming, food processing and shellfish gathering sectors and protects workers in those sectors from exploitation. The GLA works to embed a framework through which workers are treated fairly and labour providers and labour users operate on a level playing field. The GLA also plays a significant role in enforcing the protection of workers and directly tackling those who choose to abuse the system.

  • eliminate, make illegal, the gang-master system. We used to have efficient employment exchanges, through which workers [were] treated fairly and labour providers and labour users operate[d] on a level playing field. Would it be a gross affront to liberty to have all short-term agricultural employment channelled through them, rather than factored clandestinely, in the early hours, on the forecourt of a petrol station? And, if not, might wage-payment be made through the same channel — that proper amounts paid and deductions made?
  • ensure that migrant workers have “champions”. These used to be called “trade unions”.
  • make the “social market” work for decent people.

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