Category Archives: Times

‘The Despard conspiracy’

I wasn’t greatly enthused by first sight of the current issue of The Times Literary Supplement. The cover seemed to promise all things feminist and African. Within, though, are two reviews of history books. Both have, if looked at properly, Irish implications. We’ll perhaps come to the second later.

The first (page 26) is a review by Professor Marianne Elliott. If that name doesn’t ring bells, it should. She is one of those scholars who created at Liverpool University the highly-influential Institute of Irish Studies. Here she is taking large lumps out of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Hot Burning — A Tale at the Crossroads of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard. That ponderous title alone suggests something OTT, more Mills and Boon than product of a respectable academic press. The book seems to be account of the lives of

Edward Marcus Despard and his Jamaican wife Catherine, daughter of a freed slave. Despard was a minor member of the Anglo-Irish gentry, whose career in the British army had takeneito Jamaica, Nicaragua and, in 1786, to British Honduras, as its military superintendent. In Central America he took up the cause of the indigenous people and fell foul of the Baymen, or loggers. Recalled to England in 1790, he became involved with the English and Irish “underground”, was twice arrested, and executed inLondon in 1803 for his part in the so-called Despard Conspiracy (allegedly to overthrow the British government).​

On the basis of this review I shall not be rushing to buy the book.

And yet … ‘the Despard Conspiracy’. I had an echo lodged in a disused braincell, but I needed a refresher.

The Oxford Companion to Irish History is no great help:

Despard, Col. Edward Marcus (1751-1803), born in Queen’s County, a naval hero executed 21 February 1803 for an alleged revolutionary conspiracy in London. His activities, long dismissed as a wild personal venture, are now seen as part of the clandestine plotting still kept up, despite defeat in the insurrection of 1798, by the United Irishmen and their radical allies in Great Britain, with possible links to Robert Emmett’s venture later the same year.​

It is unsigned. That, to me, feels little more than a place-marker, waiting to be amplified by developing scholarship. Which may explain why, although I must have heard of the ‘Despard Conspiracy’, I wasn’t up to speed.

The DNB doesn’t quite concur with Professor Elliott:

In June 1786 Despard took up an appointment as superintendent of Honduras. Though he handled relations with the Spanish authorities well he was notably less adept as a civilian governor. His unswerving support for settlers displaced from territories recently ceded to Spain (many of whom he knew from San Juan and the Black River) led him into repeated conflict with the established British settler community, who complained repeatedly to London of his ‘visible Spirit of Self-importance and uncontrollable Domination’ (TNA: PRO, CO 123/6, 21 Feb 1788). Events culminated in his annulment (June 1789) of the colony’s police and magistracy; Despard ruled by direct decree until, suspended on half pay, he was ordered to return to Britain, where he arrived in May 1790, accompanied by his African–Caribbean wife, Catherine, and their son James.​

What comes before and after that DNB snippet is interesting.

There is a link to his older brother, John Despard, another of the colonial administrators who sprang from the lower echelons of the Ascendancy class, and rose through army connections. Much of John’s service had been in the American campaigns, and he was duly rewarded with O/C the Cape Breton colony. Time and circumstances put him running the reception committee for 25,000 Scots evicted by the Highland Clearances.

Caribbean daring-do

From the DNB we find Edward Marcus as an engineer with Nelson, capturing Fort San Juan (1779) from the Spanish (annepisode plundered by CS Forester for Hornblower) , running the occupation of Roatan and the Honduran island (1781), at the defence of Jamaica against the Franco-Spanish assault (1782). Then something of interest:

Despard headed an expedition of Jamaican settlers, assisted by British artillery, to recapture Spanish-occupied Black River territory in south-western Jamaica. For this he received royal commendation and was made a colonel of provincials.​
​In June 1786 Despard took up an appointment as superintendent of Honduras.

As if someone higher up has spotted Despard ‘deals well with the locals’.

Back in Britain, after the Honduran problem:

Despard had to wait until October 1791 to learn that, while complaints against him were dismissed, he was not to be reinstated as superintendent of Honduras. In pursuit of compensation he grew increasingly irascible, while the combination of enforced idleness and grievance against authority led him to both the London Corresponding Society and the overtly revolutionary United Irishmen (UI). He quickly became an intimate of the leading United Irishman and French secret agent William Duckett and in 1797 was reported to be co-ordinator of a proposed rising in London planned to coincide with one in Ireland and a French landing there. In 1798 Despard was pivotal in negotiations between the United Irishmen and a broader conspiratorial group, the United Britons, to foment simultaneous English and Irish risings to assist a French invasion. When O’Connor and O’Coighley, the principal leaders of the conspiracy, were apprehended in February, while hiring a boat to take them to France, habeas corpus was suspended and further arrests followed. Despard’s was predictably among them.​
​Despard seems to have been aware that the revolutionary threat had been contained by the government when, in June 1799, he petitioned for his release in return for voluntary transportation. Among political prisoners at this time he seems to have received the harshest treatment—’more like a common vagabond than a gentleman or State Prisoner’, complained his wife, Catherine (TNA: PRO, HO 42/43)—and Sir Francis Burdett made Despard’s case the centre of a campaign against the ‘English Bastille’.​

Alas! At that single bound our hero was not yet free.

He retreated to the family stamping ground at Camross, seemingly convinced to stay out of politicking. But, get this:

… in February 1802 he returned to London at the behest of the UI leader William Dowdall. After the collapse of the Irish rising of 1798 the United Irishmen had reconstituted itself as a small, centralized military body. Though Britain was now at peace with France food shortages and industrial unrest created a climate in which talk of revolution flourished. Despard now concentrated on enlisting the support of militant Irish labourers and guardsmen stationed in Windsor and London but intelligence sources also show him to have been in contact with Irish and French emissaries during the summer. Disaffected guardsmen tried to force the issue with a rising on 6 September but Despard restrained them, arguing that such action could be effective only if it coincided with an Irish rising and a French invasion; but then, on 16 November, Despard was arrested at the Oakly Arms, Lambeth, apparently planning a coup d’état to coincide with the opening of parliament later that month.​

Much of that sounds remarkably familiar. In the subsequent trial, the prosecution pulled its punches, reluctant to reveal the sources of intelligence, and particularly protective of any evidence against:

a significant number of London Jacobins in the conspiracy, of whom the motley dozen soldiers and workmen tried with Despard were far from typical.​

Instead Despard was depicted as:

a psychotic maverick who had enticed a small band of unfortunates into supporting a futile plot.​

That was when synapses closed; and I realised where Despard had appeared in my past reading. He gets incidental references in EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

The rest of Despard’s story follows a predictable pattern:

… the only incriminating evidence found at his arrest was a printed card calling for ‘the independence of Great Britain and Ireland. An equalization of Civil, Political, and Religious Rights; [and] an ample Provision for the families of the Heroes who shall fall in the contest’. An oath of allegiance to the United Britons was appended. Identical cards circulated in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Such points led Edward Thompson to argue, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), that Despard was the leader of a nationwide revolutionary conspiracy […] His arrest was simply an opportunist move by a government acting on fragmentary evidence.​

As far as I can see, that is how the notion of an overarching plot, led by Despard, remained current. Though Marianne Elliott (I now see) made an earlier effort at resurrecting Despard’s memory in her Partners in revolution: the United Irishmen and France.

Despard’s defence was circumspect, wishing perhaps not to incriminate others but also aware that the prosecution case was uneven. He enjoyed wide popularity and Nelson himself gave evidence as to his good character: ‘no man could have shewn more zealous attachment to his Sovereign and his Country’. Though finding him guilty the jury recommended mercy ‘on account of his former services’. The government, however, was not inclined to clemency. Whatever the truth of the conspiracy an exemplary verdict had been secured and punishment was enacted accordingly. On 21 February 1803, having taken leave of his wife and refusing all religious consolation, Despard was drawn on a hurdle to the Surrey county gaol, Newington, where, before a crowd reportedly of 20,000, he delivered from the scaffold a speech that was loudly cheered. Along with six co-conspirators he was hanged and his corpse decapitated, whereupon the executioner held up the head, declaring: ‘This is the head of a traitor’. His widow received the remains, which on 1 March were buried in the churchyard by St Paul’s Cathedral.​
In my humble opinion Edward Despard is another victim of the nationalist struggle:
  • Is there any Irish memorial of him, or to him?
  • Perhaps I should take time out to trace any genealogical link between him and Charlotte Despard ((1844-1939, née French), the pacifist, socialist, suffragette, and Irish nationalist, sister of Sir John French, through her husband, Maximilian Carden Despard (1839–1890).

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Filed under History, Ireland, Times Literary Supplement

I Kidd you not

Of all the ornaments to Rupert Murdoch’s (slightly) more up-market tabloid, Patrick Kidd has to be one of the more polished.

He did the daily Parliamentary Sketch with aplomb and wit, until elbowed aside to provide space for the repetitive gybes and tropes of Quentin Letts-Not. Kidd is an enthusiast for the works of the Wonderful Wodehouse, as here:

As darkness started to engulf Europe near the end of 1938, PG Wodehouse not only lightened the gloom with his best comic novel but showed how Britain could get through the next few years. “Never let a pal down” is the code by which Bertie Wooster lives and, while he may be mentally negligible, his optimism, honour and decency (coupled with having an awfully clever sidekick to get him out of scrapes) epitomised the British spirit.

Neville Chamberlain was in Munich having a chinwag with Hitler when this tale of cow creamers, policemen’s helmets and leather notebooks was serialised in a British newspaper. It reintroduced some of Wodehouse’s finest characters: the newt-fancying Gussie Fink-Nottle, the formidable Aunt Dahlia, and that droopy, soupy specimen Madeline Bassett, with her most extraordinary views on stars and rabbits. Above all it gave us the vile Roderick Spode, commander of The Black Shorts and a brilliant send-up of all fascist dictators.

Beat that, Quentin Least.

Yesterday Kidd returned to his happy hunting ground: the follies of the Kippers, with this peroration:

Mr Batten beamed indulgently at his juvenile comrades acting like toddlers smearing excrement up the wall in a cry for attention, I thought of Ukip leaders past — Henry Bolton, who said he could strangle a badger with his bare hands and ended up living in a hotel with a model half his age; His Excellency Sir Paul Nuttall PhD, the Ashes-winning Nobel laureate and CV fabricator; Diane James, who wrote “under duress” as she signed her leadership form and lasted a fortnight; and Mr Farage, a shy, modest man who always refused to do any broadcasts after more than five pints — and regretted the demise of a party of dignity and professionalism.

For a few moments, reading Kidd’s piece, I sensed the spirits of Plum Wodehouse and Heil Spode! still walking amongst us. One for joy: one for sorrow.

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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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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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Going critical

The world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place in the west stands, Old Stagg Field, of the University of Chicago on 2nd December 1942. Which means that I was born in the atomic age. Just about.

I blanch at Enrico Fermi’s confidence in his own expertise, that one of the most (ahem!) explosive experiments in all science was undertaken alongside East 55th Street.

Coitus interruptus

Translate that to national economics, and today an experiment of comparable magnitude is happening next to Westminster Bridge. The (erstwhile) “Great Repeal Bill”, then down-rated to mere “Repeal Bill”, has now slithered into the light of parliamentary day as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Mayo Clinic reckons the withdrawal method of “contraception” has, in practice, a failure rate of 22%.

It’s hard, ain’t it hard?

Of course, today is only the First Reading, so little more than a nod-and-a-wink.

The real event will be the Second reading; and there we can expect the Labour Opposition to lay amendments, and vote against any substantive motion. With a nominal majority of a bare dozen (and that’s only achieved with the mercenary aid of the DUP), the work of the government whips will be severely taxing. This is where the business of minority government becomes progressively more onerous. All the Opposition has to do is keep the powder dry, and a cohort floating in and around the Commons chamber, and every single Tory (and paid DUPper) has to available for instant voting service.

The nearest to living through the dying months of the Callaghan Government is James Graham’s drama This House. I saw that in its original at the Cottesloe Theatre, so that must have been in the late autumn of 2012. Philip Glenister (yes, DCI Gene Hunt of Life on Mars) humanised the (more-brutish-in-real-life) Labour Whip, Bob Mellish. The best rôle was Charles Edwards as the Tory Whip (and later Speaker of the Commons) Jack Weatherill. The play was revived in the West End over the past winter. Next tour it will be on tour around the provincial theatres. It’s not just a good (arguably, great) play: it is supremely relevant to our present political predicament.

For anyone with socialist/anarchic tendencies (like myself), the progress of the Brexit legislation is going to somewhere between fascinating and a-laugh-a-minute. There are few things more delightful than watching the natural enemy impaled on a cross of his (or, in this case, her) own construction. As the BBC web-site summarises:

MPs must “work together” on Brexit, the minister in charge of the UK’s EU exit has said, as he published a bill to convert EU law into British law.

The legislation, known as the repeal bill, will ensure the same rules apply in the UK after Brexit, while giving UK parliaments the power to change them.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said he will “work with anyone” to make it a success, but he faces opposition.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told the government: “This will be hell.”

Labour vowed to vote against the legislation unless there were significant changes to the details previously set out, while the SNP said there needed to be “clarity” over which powers repatriated from the EU should go to the devolved nations.

The Conservatives are relying on Democratic Unionist Party support to win key votes after losing their Commons majority in the general election.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said there could be “parliamentary guerrilla warfare” on the bill.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “For opposition parties and for Remainer Tories there is a sense today of ‘here we go’. This is government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book”.

Formally known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the draft legislation is a key plank of the government’s Brexit strategy.

Note therein: government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book. This is why Theresa May was induced to go for that General Election, which was supposed to bring in a phalanx of Tory Brexiteers, all grateful to the all-powerful Theresa May for giving them their seat. This is why the Labour Opposition (who, where it counted, exploited the Remain tendency) feel the political wind behind them. This is why the SNP and Lib Dems feel they have a chance to regain lost ground. This is why, for all the Corbyn bounce and froth, the combined Opposition may not — yet — want to bring the whole thing crashing down. Better to watch, wait, and relish the Tories in a terminal agony.

The Tory press

What allowed Fermi’s reactor to “go critical” was withdrawing the control-rods:

A simple design for a control rod was developed, which could be made on the spot: cadmium sheet nailed to a flat wooden strip … The [thirteen-foot] strips had to be inserted and removed by hand. Except when the reactivity of the pile was being measured, they were kept inside the pile and locked using a simple hasp and padlock …

(Herbert Anderson, a research student at Columbia, under John R Dunning, who became Fermi’s assistant at Chicago, quoted by Richard Rhodes, pages 433-4)

The extent to which the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill goes critical, and toxic for the Tories, depends on how the public prints moderate the reaction. The analogy of those cadmium strips is how the “papers of record” record it. Since the UK press is heavily dominated by foreign and Brexiteering owners, I have little faith the delivery will be as honest (and inflammatory) as it should be.

Take, for an example, Iain Martin in today’s The Times.

His main thrust is:

Negotiating Brexit terms with a nascent superstate will require leadership that Theresa May is not equipped to provide

Out of the traps, one recognises a frothing Brexiteer by the travesty of the EU as a nascent superstate. It isn’t. It is a working model of 27 proud and separate nations who have chosen to subsume some aspects of sovereignty in a common enterprise. Martin even goes so far as to nominate the next Tory Prime Minister:

Of the available candidates the Brexit secretary David Davis looks to me the best choice and Boris seems done for. But the chancellor Philip Hammond could emerge, or a compromise candidate such as the home secretary Amber Rudd or Priti Patel, the international development secretary.

We can see we have wandered further into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land when Priti Patel (few come harder rightist) can be suggested as a compromise candidate.

Go forth, or fourth, and stupify

In the middle of Martin’s musings comes this:

Right now, Britain does not have any leadership: it must find it soon or lose badly.

Partly this is because voting to leave a superstate in the making is, it turns out, much easier than actually leaving. The hard Brexiteers had given too little thought to how it would be done, certainly. The softer Brexiteers (me included) cannot agree on what a compromise looks like. And gleeful ultra-Remainers want to try the experiment of telling the voters that last year’s referendum doesn’t count.

Martin elides any distinction between the Tory Party and the wider nation. If Theresa May is not up to the job, the whole national enterprise is rudderless, without leadership. Not so, unless we have truly evolved into an “imperial presidency”. The power in the land should be the collective will of the Commons. If there isn’t a dominating political majority, the various views represented in the Commons have to be sifted until a consensus (actually, no more than a general will of over 320-0r-so MPs) is arrived at.

But Martin’s worst bit of journalistic legerdemain is to assert there are only three possible viewpoints: hard Brexiteers, softer Brexiteers and gleeful ultra-Remainers. The 48% (or, as recent polling suggests, now nearer the mid-50s %) are all gleeful and, like the Irriducibili football hooligans of Lazio, ultras? Catch herself’ on, Iain!

Outside the foetid world of Tory tabloids, one general opinion is closer to a fourth category: soft Remainers.

These are the folk who, regretfully, accept what came out of the 23rd June 2016 referendum,

  • whether or not it was fairly run (the electorate was appropriately pruned),
  • whether or not we voters were told truths, half-truths, or diabolical lies,
  • whether or not a 48.1/51.9 split is final and decisive’
  • whether or not it multiple subsequent interpretations anyhow approximate to what was argued beforehand.

And “soft Remainers” are going to be the crucial mass of MPs and their noble Lordships who will be the equivalent of those cadmium rods, and determine the final shape of  the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

One practical example

What happened at Stagg Field has had consequences over the intervening three-quarters of a century (Grief! Am I that old?). It led to:

  • Hiroshima, and Nagasaki;
  • deterrence theory, and MAD;
  • some 500 nuclear power plants across thirty countries around the world;
  • Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl;
  • the production of 11 or 12% of global electricity supplies;
  • nuclear and isotopic medicines and advances.

One thing that has been universally agreed is that nuclear power should be controlled and regulated internationally. After various failures (the Baruch Plan, UNAEC, attempts at non-proliferation treaties), for sixty years we have had the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Not perfect, not wholly world-wide, but it largely works.

Gone critical

Across Europe and 29 nations we have Euratom. Originally Euratom was somewhat aside from the Coal and Steel Community, but was pursued as a discrete operation and source of energy. For convenience, Euratom was folded into the 1965 Merger Treaty of the EEC. Even after Maastricht in 1993, Euratom remained a separate entity, not under direct EU control. There is, logically, no reason why the UK should not remain as associated as Switzerland — except the bone-headedness of one, Theresa May, as the thrall of the Tory head-bangers. The objection by these types is the European Court of Justice’s

rare and arcane judgments on nuclear matters… Rules on nuclear energy are not politically sensitive and were not an issue in the referendum campaign. The government does not need to take such a rigid position on the ECJ in this domain.

(The Times, second leader, 12th July 2017.)

In recent days, all and sundry have recognised that the UK needs supplies of isotopes (for which we have no production facilities) through Euratom (which also gives access to 71% of world uranium production).

Then there is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. It will be owned and un by EDF Energy. That is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Électricité de France. Which, some may think, raises intriguing questions of Euratom oversight.

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Come in, number 10! Your time is up!

Matt Chorley for the Times “Red Box” morning briefing:

It has been 106 days since Theresa May flipped the egg timer and triggered Article 50, beginning the two-year countdown to Brexit.

It is hard to argue that the last four months, or indeed the last year, have been productively spent.

Since 2018 is not a Leap Year, the UK has just 624 days to get it sorted.

Shouldn’t be a problem for this dynamic, cohesive, song and stable Tory team.  Errr …

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Filed under broken society, Conservative Party policy., Europe, Times, Tories.

A quick fisking

Two prefatory notes:
1. Each week-day morning I get three emails:

    • The Times is usually first out of the traps with Matt Chorley’s Red Box;
    • Paul Waugh shrewdly chips in with Waugh Zone, the political lead of HuffPo UK;
    • and, trailing the rear, because he has been mulling yet another excruciatingly-brilliant punning headline, comes the New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush.

2. Back in the days of yore, when social media were in their infancy, we took umbrage at the utterances of Robert Fisk. Because we were so much more intelligent than Fisk, we would “fisk” his columns, with counter arguments.

So, this grey Yorkshire morning, I’m fisking Paul Waugh.

REALITY BITES

Way back in 2010, David Cameron made the Liberal Democrats “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to join him in Government. Tomorrow, Theresa May will make what looks to Labour like a small, closed and limited offer to prop her up in power.

Without exception — and for once even the Torygraph is on board — the commentariat do not like the idea.

May’s relaunch speech has been well trailed overnight and includes a line that she will accept “the new reality” of her loss of a Parliamentary majority. But given her lifelong instinct of trusting only a tight-knit team around her, can May reach out to her own party, let alone Labour and others? May rightly wants to build consensus on areas like social care, but just ask Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham how open to cross-party working she has been in the past. On the Today programme, even the impeccably moderate Damian Green underlined the difficulties of any cross-party working, ridiculing Angela Rayner over the cost of wiping out all student debt. No wonder Labour’s Andrew Gwynne dismissed May’s olive branch, saying “they’re having to beg for policy proposals from Labour”.

We are not — heaven forfend! — to see this as a “relaunch”. Such lèse-majesté would deny the glory of Number 10.

The rest of that paragraph amount to a recital of so many current metropolitan political memes. Memes they may be; but they seem copper-bottomed. The jibe about student debt should not be over-looked: all sides are now coming around to recognising what a total disaster, educationally and financially — as well as electorally, the ConDem government inflicted by cranking up student fees and debt to the highest in the developed world. Predictably, the Tories continue, officially, to impale themselves while, behind the arras, scratching around for a way to climb-down.

If the UK were Germany, we might have seen some sort of ‘grand coalition’ in the wake of the snap election, driven by a sense of national mission to deliver a consensual Brexit (I remember Gisela Stuart floating the Tory-Labour coalition idea if the 2015 election had seen a hung Parliament). But we are not Germany and it takes world wars, rather than impending trade wars, to make our opposing parties work together on that level.

The essential differences between English and continental political practices derive from:

  • the shape of the Commons chamber, itself a distant legacy from the choir-stalls of St Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster. Once there are two sides, each individual member of the Commons had to decide whether he (and it was always a “he”) was right of the Speaker (the Administration) or left (Opposition). Not for nothing are the two front benches traditionally two swords’ lengths apart.
  • over the centuries, the main supply of parliamentarians has been the Law, they are a contrarian, disputatious and forensic lot. Each argument has to be set against a counter-argument. Remember Swift’s satire of the Little-Endians versus the BigEndians.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far has been built on vigorously opposing the Tories, not working with them. And everyone in Parliament remembers just how badly burned the Lib Dems were by the Tories in coalition, never given credit for the good stuff, blamed for the bad stuff. May will say tomorrow that through cross-party working, “ideas can be clarified and improved and a better way forward found”. But in fact she’s admitting the reality that just 7 Tory MPs is all it takes to defeat the Government. And critics will say the only true way to get her to make concessions is to threaten rebellion after rebellion.

“Jeremy Corbyn’s success so far“: notice two presumptions there. “Success” in practice amounts to gaining 30 seats when all the indicators were for a possible loss of as many as sixty. However, in all truth, Labour opposition has been remarkably limited: in particular on the #Brexit thing. When 49 Labour MPs voted against the Government to keep the UK in the single market, they were abused and worse by Corbynite supporters.

One person who could more credibly make a genuinely big, bold offer to Labour is David Davis, precisely because he would be trusted by his own side not to sell out on the big principles, while being pragmatic enough on how to deliver them. I’ve said before that DD is the Martin McGuinness of the Brexit movement, capable of compromise without abandoning his supporters’ main strategic goal. And despite errors from key allies like Andrew Mitchell, he looks increasingly like the favourite in any Tory leadership race. Green this morning reiterated David Lidington’s line about “the warm Prosecco problem” of Tory MPs gossiping about the leadership. But Mitchell’s parties feature only the finest Champagne, and DD himself likes a pint of bitter. That’s the kind of cross-class, party consensus that May will need to worry about most.

For little obvious reason — but mainly, one has to suspect, for want of a better — David Davis has emerged as the Tory front-runner for a new leader (and, in the present dispensation, Prime Minister). I cannot help musing the Waugh over-eggs his pudding with the “trusted by his own side”. The ultras on the frothing right of the Tory Party trust no-one but themselves — which is why Theresa May keeps head-bangers and second-raters like Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom as household pets. As of now, Davis’s key strength is keeping in line. Were he to go rogue, he could easily bring down the whole shebang.

One final, dislocated thought:

John Rentoul (another commentator of value) is, but of course, cocking an ironic eye there. Irony on irony: that Paul Staines (by name and by nature) felt moved to protect “the establishment”.

On Saturday I was at the Big Meeting, the Durham Miners’ Gala. The Red Banners flew free. The Red Flag was sung, and — uniquely — the singers knew more than the first verse and chorus.  Tee-shirts proclaimed ¡No pasarán! and La lutte continue! I even heard a scratch band bash out The Internationale. I could have bought books, badges and posters celebrating Lenin, Trotsky, James Connolly.

It was all festive, and slightly tongue-in-cheek. For all the revolutionary ardor, these subversives were set on little more than getting down the next pint.

And yet, according to Guido Fawkes: they had already won! These north-easterners had voted #Brexit. They were successfully challenging the Establishment.

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