Category Archives: crime

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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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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A further truth to be told

David Conn’s extended piece for today’s Guardian, on the Hillsborough cover-up, is journalism at its best, and the exemplar why some of us will support, buy and read that great newspaper until the end. Even at £2 a throw.

The on-line presentation is less cogent than what is in the printed version. For example, in the paper we find this:

Later that day, the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, visited Hillsborough. [Chief Constable Peter] Wright briefed them. Ingham has always since said of Hillsborough that he “learned on the day” it was caused by a “tanked-up mob”. Ingham, later given a knighthood, has confirmed to there Guardian this was what police told Thatcher.

Good enough? That lets Thatcher off the hook?

Well, not for this blogger.

The culture of South Yorkshire police was “institutionally” corrupt. As Conn, also in the print edition, describes:

The evidence built into a startling indictment of the South Yorkshire police, their chain of command and conduct — a relentlessly detailed evisceration of a British police force. Responsible for an English county at the jeans-and-trainers end of the1980s, the police had brutally policed the miners’ strike, and was described by some of its own former officers as “regimented”. with morning parade and saluting of officers, ruled by an “iron fist” institutionally unable to admit mistakes. The dominance of Wright, a decorated police officer who died in 2011, loomed over the catastrophe. He was depicted as a frightening, authoritarian figure who treated the force “like his own personal territory” and whose orders nobody dared debate.

Those of us who had to drive down the A1 during the grim days of the miners’ dispute remember Check Point Charlie at the A1/A57/A614 roundabout, south of Ranby, where the A1 veers south-east. The lay-by (now by-passed by recent road-works) was where — day and night — a detachment of the Finest were posted, lest South Yorkshire miners escaped south to wreak havoc and mayhem.

CoulterJim Coulter, Susan Miller and Martin Walker produced a damning report (November 1984): A State of Siege, Politics and Policing of the Coalfields:  Miners Strike 1984. It was, but of course, just another loony lefty whinge — but it still stands up to scrutiny. The facts therein speak for themselves. The opinions have been proven by dint of experience;

It is important to understand the politics behind the policing because through the politics we can see what the Conservative government are pursuing is not the ‘rule of law’ but the ‘law of rule’; brute force and violence.

Rather than policing being an incidental spin off from the dispute it is at the very heart of it. [page 5]

Don’t believe me. Try ex-Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, John Stalker:

Britain has never been closer to becoming a police state than when Margaret Thatcher was in charge.

As Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester I saw at first hand how her authoritarian policies could have permanently shattered the bond of trust between the police and the people.

She turned the police into a paramilitary force and put us on to a war footing.

I met her several times during my time as a senior police officer.

She took an uncommon interest in law and order, and always acted as if she was the Home Secretary as well as the PM.

That was never more clear than during the miner’s strike in 1984 when I believe Margaret Thatcher took Britain to the brink of becoming a police state.

She decided that “her” police force was going to keep the miners and pickets under control. It was all about showing who was boss…

We got streams of instructions from the Home Office on how the strike should be handled, cleverly covered with legal fig leaves saying things such as, “of course the Chief Constable has complete control over operational matters, but this is our advice”.

miners-strike-orgreaveThe “morgue” (the libraries of newspaper clippings, from before the days of the internet and electronic documentation) of any proper media operation will thrown up evidence that it was Thatcher’s wish and intention to create an “officer corps” to run “her” police service.

The ethos of the Thatcher era was an unremitting war against the “enemy within“.

At Hillsborough the enemy were the “animals” (yes: you will find that term used, and quoted in the subsequent Commons debate) who had to be caged. Five years earlier it had been the miners and their families whose liberties were revoked, whose homes invaded, who were strip-searched and violated.

When Thatcher and Ingham dropped in on the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, after Hillsborough, it wasn’t just a convivial visit. Whatever impression Wright foisted on Thatcher, she was more than a willing dupe.

The guilt doesn’t stop, conveniently, with Wright and his subordinates.

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British journalists, political bombshells and forgeries

I used to ascribe it to Hilaire Belloc, because I have a liking for Belloc’s epigrams. It was, in fact Humbert Wolff, a civil servant with the Ministry of Labour, a translator and writer.

You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

Good Friday

Which leads us to this extraordinary business when a secret document, presumably via the Foreign Office (prop: the Rt Hon Philip Hammond, as in very Right and oh-so-honourable), finds its way to the Daily Telegraph.

The Daily Telegraph has seen the official British Government memorandum which includes details of a private meeting between Miss Sturgeon and Sylvie Bermann, the French Ambassador to the UK. 

The memorandum which was written by a senior British civil servant, dated March 6th, states: “Just had a telephone conversation with Pierre-Alain Coffinier (PAC), the French CG [consul-general]. He was keen to fill me in on some of the conversations his Ambassador had during her visit to Scotland last week. All of this was given on a confidential basis.” 

It continues: “The Ambassador….had a truncated meeting with the FM [Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister] (FM running late after a busy Thursday…). Discussion appears to have focused mainly on the political situation, with the FM stating that she wouldn’t want a formal coalition with Labour; that the SNP would almost certainly have a large number of seats… that she’d rather see David Cameron remain as PM (and didn’t see Ed Miliband as PM material).”

The thought has to be “just too convenient”. Note the incriminating fingerprints:

  • the Torygraph has “seen” the document;
  • it is then a “leak” of a memo of a telephone conversation and all at third hand — Bermann☞Coffinier☞unnamed UK official;
  • the information was “on a confidential basis”, so its revelation is an embarrassment to both national governments;
  • rashly, an adverb one might not ever readily apply to Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister got personal, down and dirty;
  • the document emerges late on a Friday, a Bank Holiday Friday, when government officials have departed for a long weekend. Fridays play quite a rôle in what follows.

And we can, of course, trust the Torygraph?

Well, let’s consider how George Galloway was stitched up. You’ll find the term “forgery” twenty-one times in that account. It’s a long read, so I’ll leave you to enjoy. One thought before we swiftly pass on: even were the document no forgery, there remains the further oddities of how the Torygraph got it, and used it with malevolent intent. We need not speculate on why. And, in the present case, we have confirmation: Private Eye And the Daily Mail is an impeccable source? MailwailA bit self-regarding, don’tcha think, of the Mail to harken back to 1924 — for, ahem, there is the small matter of the Zinoviev letter, presumably concocted by White Russians, and deployed by the Tory Party at a convenient moment in the 1924 General Election. And published by … the Daily Mail. I like this one because it has a parallel existence to the Sturgeon canard. The language that Gregor Zinoviev uses (27 October 1924) almost echoes Sturgeon’s denial. Compare and contrast:

The letter of 15th September, 1924, which has been attributed to me, is from the first to the last word, a forgery. … The forger has shown himself to be very stupid in his choice of the date. On the 15th of September, 1924, I was taking a holiday in Kislovodsk, and, therefore, could not have signed any official letter.

Friday, bloody Friday

The exchange between Coffinier and the unnamed British official took place on a Friday (a French official at his desk on a Friday?) Sturgeon sent a public tweet: Sturgeon

… to the Telegraph’s Scottish political correspondent Simon Johnson read: “.@simon_telegraph your story is categorically, 100%, untrue…which I’d have told you if you’d asked me at any point today.”

Johnson didn’t reply to the First Minister.

The French Embassy has since backed up Sturgeon’s version of events in a statement.

It read: “While the ambassador and the First Minister, some time ago, have discussed the political situation, Ms Sturgeon did not touch on her personal political preferences with regards the future Prime minister.”

Which has more of the “look-and-feel” of the canny Scots lawyer we know Sturgeon to be.

The Tory game-play here mirrors the Zinoviev letter: then the target was the wavering third-party Liberals, now it’s the third-party SNP.

And further back, does another event come to mind?

Ah, yes! The Grand-daddy of them all — The Times and Richard Pigott’s forgeries of Charles Stewart Parnell. The original articles are here.

For and on the present kerfuffle:

Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a civil service inquiry into the leaking of a memo which claimed she privately wanted to see Conservatives remain in power following the May 7 General Election. 

The Scottish National Party leader described the allegation as “100% untrue” and said she had written to Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to demand a Whitehall probe into how the account of her conversation with the French ambassador was obtained by the Daily Telegraph. 

She said the story was a sign of “panic” in Westminster over the surge in support for the SNP, and issued a challenge to Labour leader Ed Miliband to state publicly that he would work with the SNP to “lock out” David Cameron from Downing Street in the event of a hung parliament.

 Only around the tenth to twelfth paragraph, even in this “updated” version, do we get to the caveats and Nicola Sturgeon’s firm denial. Odd, that.

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Dasp’rut

I’ve always enjoyed the Ulsterman’s (and -woman’s) ability to find anything “desperate”. As far as I can pin down this all-purpose expression, it indicates the odd, out-of-the-ordinary, even wryly amusing.

Just once in a while, those attempted e-mail scams throw up such an object.

Is it really worthwhile to pose as Mrs Florence Au and solicit me to receive a cut of her late husband’s multi-millions, lodged in a foreign bank?

Or the expert who remotely diagnoses a security fault on my Windows PC, when the whole house is Mac-dependent?

Or the notification that my non-existent account with the Bank of Ireland, Paypal, Amazon or Ebay has been infringed?

But … whoa! … here comes a new one. 

Malcolm Redfellow, it seems, is being chased for not paying his dues to E-ZPass, the electronic toll-road collection system for the North-Eastern United States.

Since Malcom Redfellow does physically exist (at least beyond these mumblings), does not drive — and certainly not in the Tri-State area, does not and never has owned a vehicle or a driving licence, —

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

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On with the monstering

That Dan Hodges piece (see previous) is about as subcutaneously irritating as it can get. But that is only part of the great flannelling which is how this Rotherham story has become.

  • At no time in all this does anyone recognise where the whole story, as currently represented, comes from. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation in Rotherham, 1997-2013 was commissioned by and for … Rotherham Council. And presumably paid for by them, too.
  • Ever since 2001 Rotherham Council has funded the Risky Business youth project, which:

worked with young people between 11 and 25 years, providing sexual health advice, and help in relation to alcohol and drugs, self-harm, eating disorders, parenting and budgeting. By the late ‘90s, it was beginning to identify vulnerable girls on the streets of the town. Its relationship with any young person was voluntary on both sides. It was part of the Council’s Youth Services, though it derived its funding from various sources in its early years. One of its main functions was the provision of training to voluntary and statutory agencies working in the field, to magistrates, the Police, schools and foster carers.

Risky Business is one of the few good-news stories here.

  • The failings were at management level, as Professor Jay calls it:

the collective failures of political and officer leadership were blatant. From the beginning, there was growing evidence that child sexual exploitation was a serious problem in Rotherham. This came from those working in residential care and from youth workers who knew the young people well.

Within social care, the scale and seriousness of the problem was underplayed by senior managers.

  • Surely, the main failing was with the South Yorkshire Police. Again from Professor Jay:

At an operational level, the Police gave no priority to CSE, regarding many child victims with contempt and failing to act on their abuse as a crime. Further stark evidence came in 2002, 2003 and 2006 with three reports known to the Police and the Council, which could not have been clearer in their description of the situation in Rotherham. The first of these reports was effectively suppressed because some senior officers disbelieved the data it contained. This had led to suggestions of cover- up. The other two reports set out the links between child sexual exploitation and drugs, guns and criminality in the Borough. These reports were ignored and no action was taken to deal with the issues that were identified in them.

This becomes even more glaringly obvious when we reach paragraphs 4.1 and 4.2 of the Jay Report:

4.1 Children’s social care introduced CSE as a category for referral in 2001. However, many exploited children were wrongly categorised as being ‘out of control’. Prior to January 2013, the Police did not have a separate category for CSE. Neither agency had compiled reliable data that the Inquiry could use to estimate the scale of the problem over time. There was good information about cases open to the CSE team or co-worked by them, but information about other children being supported by children’s social care was not easily obtained. [My emphasis]

Jay chart

4.2 In the chart above we summarise what we were able to find out about caseloads and contacts received by children’s social care. The data must be treated with caution. The figures were not collected or presented in a systematic way from year to year. Nevertheless, the chart gives a broad indication of the scale of the problem as reflected in children’s social care records.

 I am aware from my own past connection with local authority business that the casework-load for social workers is excessive. Even now, Rotherham’s specialist child sexual exploitation team has 51 active cases, and sixteen looked after children who were identified by children’s social care as being at serious risk of sexual exploitation or having been sexually exploited.

So, let’s consider spending constraints. In fact, Professor Jay does that for us, too:

The combined effect of changes to local authority funding in England has been a dramatic reduction in resources available to Rotherham and neighbouring Councils. By 2016, Rotherham will have lost 33% of its spending power in real terms compared to 2010/11.

For the current financial year (i.e. after Rotherham’s problem had been identified, and lambasted by the Commons Select Committee) that‘s:

a £23 million programme of cuts – as well as a tax increase – in Rotherham Council’s budget for the [present] year.

The authority has already had to slash £70 million from its spending plans over the last four years, and needs to find another £23m of savings by next April.

A council tax increase of 1.9 per cent – the first rise in the town for four years – has been proposed, but ‘frontline services’ will be affected in the latest round of cuts.

Those cuts to ‘frontline services’ include:

children and young people’s services will lose £3m.

Rotherham, lest we forget, ranks 310th of the 324 English authorities in the Experian Resilience Index.

Any monstering there should properly start with Eric Pickles at the Department of Communities and Local Government.

There is one other operation that requires a severe monstering: the South Yorkshire Police.

Read this, and weep:

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) concluded that officers in its public protection unit spent “a great deal deal of time trying to disprove” victims’ allegations.

HMIC’s chief inspector, Tom Winsor, ordered South Yorkshire police to end immediately the culture of “investigate-to-record”, where officers do not record incidents as possible crimes until they have been investigated.

Of the violent offences, including rape, that had been written off as “no crime” by the force, just under a fifth were wrongly classified and should have been pursued, inspectors found.HMIC examined 66 recorded crimes of rape, violence and robbery that South Yorkshire police had recorded as no-crime but found that 11 of these – equal to 17% – were incorrectly classified.

The report said: “This culture of dealing with reports of crime shows a disregard for victims and is unacceptable; it hides the true extent of the picture of crime from the force and is particularly concerning when the offences investigated by this unit are often of the most serious nature and victims are often the most vulnerable.” […]

The HMIC also raised concerns about South Yorkshire police’s recording of crimes including child abuse.

Winsor said that inspectors had examined 53 reports to South Yorkshire’s specialist departments. Out of those, 34 crimes should have been recorded – but only 18 were, the report said. Of these 18 crimes, eight fell outside the 72-hour limit allowed to record incidents.

The report found: “This level of under-recorded crime is a significant cause of concern and is a matter of material and urgent importance, particularly as some of these relate to violence and sexual assault against vulnerable children.”

South Yorkshire police currently have 173 “live” investigations into suspected child sexual exploitation, 32 of which are in Rotherham, a spokeswoman for the force said on Thursday. [again, my emphasis]

So there are 141 “live” CSE investigations going on in the other three administrative areas of the South Yorkshire Police Authority. Obviously Rotherham may not be quite the worst cess-pit of depravity.

South Yorkshire Police previously distinguished themselves in the 1984 Miner’s Strike and at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

In 1984:

After Orgreave, South Yorkshire police claimed they had been attacked by striking miners, and prosecuted 95 people for riot and unlawful assembly, offences that carried potential life sentences. All were acquitted, after defence lawyers argued that police evidence was false, fabricated and that an officer’s signature on a statement was forged.

[Michael] Mansfield [QC], who defended three of the accused miners, describes the prosecutions as “the biggest frame-up ever”. Mansfield argues that South Yorkshire police, under [Chief Constable Peter] Wright, had been “institutionally corrupt” and was still unreformed when the Liverpool supporters came to Sheffield for the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

In 1989:

Lord Justice Taylor, in his official report into Hillsborough, published in 1990, judged that mismanagement by South Yorkshire police was the prime cause of the disaster, yet the force relentlessly sought to lay the blame on the Liverpool supporters. A unit of senior officers, reporting to Wright, oversaw that case, ordering junior officers to rewrite their statements, to delete criticisms of the police’s own operation and emphasise allegations that supporters were drunk and misbehaving.

In those days, of course, the South Yorkshire Police had a firm friend in 10 Downing Street. The private briefing that Margaret Thatcher was given (to be told only what she and the police wanted her to hear) the day after Hillsborough, and the equally-misleading report of Merseyside Chief Constable Sir Kenneth Oxford only came into the public domain in 2012.

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The Europa thing

My starter for ten:

In the 1975 European Referendum campaign I started out as a convinced anti. I had read the arguments by the Labour opponents and found them solid. I spoke from platforms on that basis. As the date of the poll, 5th June, came closer, so my convictions weakened to the point when — for the first and only time in my enfranchised adult life — I couldn’t bring myself even to visit the polling station. Since when I have accepted that — at least for those of us who live and work in the southern UK — the European link goes with the climate. London, after all, as close to Brussels as it is to this fine city of (old) York). And now less than a couple of hours journey from the Euston Road.

Yesterday, with morning coffee and sponge cake …

It was grey and wet, and I spent over an hour watching passing trade from the windows of Belfast’s Europa Hotel. In that time I dissected the Guardian, the Times and the Irish Times. Two opinion pieces stood out:

and

Both attempted to put their topic in an historical context — Ridley, who was essentially plucking books from his guilt-pile, opened with:

In almost every nation, if you go back far enough, government began as a group of thugs who, as Pope Gregory VII put it in 1081, “raised themselves up above their fellows by pride, plunder, treachery, murder — in short by every kind of crime”.

Was Canute, or William the Conqueror, or Oliver Cromwell really much different from the Islamic State? They got to the top by violence and then violently dealt with anybody who rebelled. The American writer Albert Jay Nock in 1939 observed: “The idea that the state originated to serve any kind of social purpose is completely unhistorical. It originated in conquest and confiscation — that is to say, in crime . . . No state known to history originated in any other manner, or for any other purpose.”

Heinrich_4_gBy the way, that quotation (which may be via R.W.Dyson) from Pope Gregory comes from a letter to Bishop Hermann of Metz, in March 1081, at the time when the Papacy was “having issues” over lay investiture with Heinrich IV — which may amount to control of the “single market” of its day.

Government as “violent gangs”?

Ridley’s sub-heading is pertinent:

The threat of force is implicit in law and order but a modern state should recoil at the armour on show in Missouri.

Where that leads to is the edge of terror:

The Republican senator Rand Paul commented in Time magazine that the federal government had incentivised the militarisation of local police, funding municipal governments to “build what are essentially small armies”. Evan Bernick, of the Heritage Foundation, warned last year that “the Department of Homeland Security has handed out anti-terrorism grants to cities and towns across the country, enabling them to buy armoured vehicles, guns, armour, aircraft”. The Pentagon actually donates military equipment to the police, including tanks.

We have not yet gone so far in this country. Ofsted and the Met Office — as far as I know — do not yet arm their inspectors and forecasters. But the days when the state’s monopoly on violence was merely hinted at by a policeman’s uniform are long gone. You see police with sub-machineguns everywhere, and the Met is about to purchase water cannon to keep us in order. I hope that in combating violent gangs, our governments do not themselves turn back into violent gangs.

“A swift and minor change”

Ah, yes! Boris Johnson’s illegal (because Theresa May — bless her cotton socks and leopard kitten-heels — has made clear their use is not “authorised”) water-cannon. Appropriate that Ridley drops that into a Monday when Boris Johnson was arguing for English law to adopt presumption of guilt:

At present the police are finding it very difficult to stop people from simply flying out via Germany, crossing the border, doing their ghastly jihadi tourism, and coming back. The police can and do interview the returnees, but it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a “rebuttable presumption” that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose.

A different perspective

Yet it is Kennedy’s account of things European that grabbed me.

His thesis depends from the 1957 Treaty of Rome, in which the original six nations:

Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe

He emphasises that was explicitly accepted by Britain:

not just since 1973, but effectively since Macmillan’s Conservative government first applied for membership in 1961.

Moreover:

Some argue the “ever closer union” was merely a vague aspiration, committing the member states to nothing more than increased co-operation. But there was little vague about the objectives set at the Paris summit of October 1972 by the six founding members and the three new members – the UK, Ireland and Denmark.

All nine endorsed a transition from a common market to full economic and monetary union by the end of 1980, including, possibly, a single currency. The heads of government also committed to transforming, before the end of 1980, “the whole complex of the relations of member states into a European Union”.

Even the Iron Lady, despite her later apostasy, accepted the notion:

Global economic crises and differences among the member states meant the 1980 deadline was missed, but it was replaced in the mid-1980s by the 1992 deadline for the completion of the single (or internal) market, based on a detailed schedule of European legislation to guarantee free movement of goods, services, capital and people within the EU – a project warmly endorsed by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher. [My emphasis]

“It’s for real.”

Allow me to go beyond Kennedy’s account, to recall just how Thatcher — as late as 1988 — gushed with enthusiasm for the Single Market:

We must get this right. Too often in the past Britain has missed opportunities.

How we meet the challenge of the Single Market will be a major factor, possibly the major factor, in our competitive position in European and world markets into the twenty-first century. Getting it right needs a partnership between government and business.

The task of government is two-fold: — to negotiate in Brussels so as to get the possible results for Britain; —and then to make you, the business community, aware of the opportunities, so that you can make the most of them.

It’s your job, the job of business, to gear yourselves up to take the opportunities which a single market of nearly 320 million people will offer.

Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people.

Bigger than Japan. Bigger than the United States. On your doorstep. And with the Channel Tunnel to give you direct access to it.

It’s not a dream. It’s not a vision. It’s not some bureaucrat’s plan. It’s for real. And it’s only five years away.

Quite what she meant by Action to get rid of the barriers if not a pragmatic ever closer union defeats me.

Yet this is what the contemporary, revanchist Tories want to reverse. And, now, Cameron — who has been playing footsie for so long — finally concedes to his frothing Eurosceptics:

I do not oppose further integration within the eurozone: I think it is inevitable. Eurozone members must make those decisions. But I know the British people want no part of it, want to avoid deeper integration, and want our country properly protected from the impacts on the single market of any further integration that the eurozone undertakes.

This is not the speech of a “thinker”: it is subjective (note the proliferation of first-person singulars here, as in all Cameron speeches) and visceral. But it is not visceral conviction: it is the gut-wrenching fear of being outflanked by the UKIPpers and eurosceptics of his own party. And, as Kennedy suggests, it is dangerous nonsense:

… is the UK debate … a domestic squabble fuelled by fear of Ukip and the reluctance of the major parties to challenge Euroscepticism? Is it a dangerous bluff to frighten EU partners into concessions? If so, it could be a serious miscalculation.

“Miscalculation”?

This could be Cameron’s political epitaph.

  • After five years of spatchcocked coalition,
  • with austerity,
  • over the Scottish referendum,
  • with growing social division exacerbated by gross mishandling of welfare,
  • over indecisive foreign policy,
  • with repressive tendencies and cleavages growing in his own party, and now
  • with Europe —

“The great miscalculator”.

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