Category Archives: Trade unions

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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Two truths are still to be told

I attended closely to the YouTube feed of the “debate” between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith over the leadership of the Labour Party.

It seemed to me that two strong issues went AWOL, by both parties (and — let’s be honest here — there really are two tribes inhabiting the Labour reservation).

So these two essential questions:

What should the Party be doing to improve the lot of left-behind workers?

That is essentially the same question as “What went wrong in the #Brexit campaign?”, or “How to counteract the attraction of UKIP?”, and many others which go back to alienation of the working-class vote.

The answer is quite simple, and comes in different forms of essentially the same thing:

  • Re-activate the employees’ working rights.
  • Do what Citrine and Feather did for the German employees under deNazification.
  • Strengthen the power of trades unions in the work places.

It isn’t enough (though both Corbyn and Smith seem to argue so) to rely on central government racking up “minimum wage” levels.

What that achieves, instantly, is to erode differentials. Indeed it often means that the next wage-tier above minimum is absorbed into a lumpen-proletarian base. It also negates any pressure on the employer to innovate to improve productivity: after all, the combine has a quiescent work-force, which can be refreshed by adding under-25s or “adult apprentices”, who come cheaper than minimum. Or, of course, by using zero-hours contracts. Cue Dilbert from 1993:


There are “costs” to beefing up the unions.

Labour becomes more expensive.

Which means, in the short term, unemployment may rise.

It also means there is more cash floating round the system. That may be “inflationary”, but it also means there is an increase in demand — and both services and manufacturing should benefit. Meanwhile, in the present context, #Brexit has ensured that imports are more expensive, and domestic production should be more competitive. Which should create a demand for skilled employment.

Why did Labour lose the 2015 General Election?

Because of the Big Lie and the Big Bribe.

The Big Lie was that the previous Labour Government’s investment in public services broke the economy and caused the 2007 Crash.

Pause for breath on that one. It wasn’t the collapse of one US over-levered operation after another, until Lehman Brothers were made to walk the plank. It wasn’t the reckless lending of uncontrolled fringe bankers. It wasn’t the Stock Markets taking flight. No: it was because Labour had civilised public education and public health care. No more outdoor school toilets. No lying on hospital trolleys for hours. So: the Tory remedy was to bring back public squalor (Psst: try private health care and schooling!)

The Big Bribe was to pay off those who vote at the expense of those who don’t.

So the seniors get their “triple lock” of guaranteed public pension pay-offs, to be paid for by austerity pay-freezes for those at the bottom of the heap. Oh, and if you’re got money in pension-funds, rush off and invest in a Ferrari or a Spanish time-share. You know you really, really need to. If you’re paying cooperation tax, here’s a let-off.

But to pursue either of those, would involve a real “debate”.


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More Boulton bumble

Provided we bear in mind “news” amounts to no more than an edited version of as much “truth” as they feel we need to be told, we can’t go far wrong. Just keep digging for more.

And nowhere more so in the Murdochian edits of what might be in the “public domain”.

Which brings me to Adam Boulton’s Sunday Times slot. This week cozying up to the clichéd Elephant in the Room:

Not satisfied with eliminating the budget deficit, Osborne is bent on re-engineering Britain as a high-pay, low-welfare, low-tax economy. To this end, he is calling the shots on cutting tax credits. As a result the new government faces the biggest crisis of its short life.

My main gripe there is the “high-pay” thing. Evidence needed, Mr Boulton.

The official plaster-of-Paris fig-leaf applied to the offence is the (wait for it!) “national living wage“:

… a new, compulsory living wage from April 2016.

It will be paid to workers aged 25 and above. Initially, it will be set at £7.20 an hour, with a target of it reaching more than £9 an hour by 2020. Part-time and full-time workers will get it.

It will give a pay rise to six million workers but is expected to cost 60,000 jobs and reduce hours worked by four million a week, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

On paper it looks too-good-to-be-true:


Note the weasel-word: “forecast”. Note, too the wide variation of what it might mean. And — since we live in an age of recognising the cost-of-everything, but the value-of-nothing (especially the value of words, promises, pledges, aspirations, whatever) — what imposts it lays on employers. It should also lay a burden on government, to ensure it delivers, and on that ground, one has one’s doubts:

The National Living Wage’s introduction could mean an increase in black market payments to workers, a hospitality industry spokesman has said. 

Many employers will have to increase salaries when the new £7.20 an hour measure comes into effect next April.

Colin Neill of Hospitality Ulster said it would have major implications for hotels and restaurants.

He told the BBC’s Inside Business programme there was a risk of more workers being paid “cash-in-hand”. 

Mr Neill said that while the hospitality industry was “in a much more difficult place than others”, various sectors were looking at “how we’re going to deal with this and, actually, how can you pass on the cost”.

To clarify: there are just two ways of “passing on the cost” —

  • billing the customer and end-user,
  • or diddling the employees, cooking the books, and by-passing any charges and taxes on employment (especially, social security payments).

Are we all sure:

  • the latter won’t happen?
  • or that official inspection will be adequate to sort out the rogue employers?

But, where I’m sitting (quite comfortably, thank you for asking), that’s not the Bigger Picture.

What that glossy incremental line-graph, an ever increasing basic pay-packet, ignores is the way it will primarily mean no more than absorbing the next wage-bracket above minimum into the “national living wage”. In theory, and on paper, the employee currently just above the £7:20 per hour rate should see a proportionate increase — so the current £9 per hour wage should rise by 25% by 2020 (say to £11:20 per hour), to match the increase in minimum.

Better believe it!

For, unless there is real pressure from the employees, that simply will not happen. Fair dos, there may be nugatory increases. But, without proper trade union pressures — precisely the thing this government is dead-set to eliminate — there won’t be justice done.

Which has other implications.

Especially for productivity, which is where — for the last decade — we have catastrophically failed.

Oh, and haven’t we heard of Adam Boulton’s high-pay, low-welfare, low-tax economy somewhere before? Something along these lines:

In bringing about economic recovery, we should all be on the same side. Government and public, management and unions, employers and employees, all have a common interest in raising productivity and profits, thus increasing investment and employment, and improving real living standards for everyone in a high-productivity, high-wage, low-tax economy

Now where was that? Ah, yes! The Conservative manifesto, foreward by Margaret Thatcher, for the 1979 General Election.

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Proportionate policing

Yes, folks, it’s Schlock! Horror! time again with the Sunday papers.

You may detect some political bias when one sweary ex-Cabinet Minister outnumbers 3,200 blacklisted workers


By the way, Andrew Mitchell reported himself, just a few days ago, to have suffered “An extraordinarily difficult year”.


However, his difficulties may since have been eased, as noted by the Financial Times:

Andrew Mitchell, who stood aside as Conservative chief whip after being accused of calling a policeman a “pleb” outside Downing Street, has found a new job as a consultant to Investec, an asset management company.

Mr Mitchell, a former Lazard banker, will take on the role as “senior strategic adviser”, which involves 10 days’ work a year, for which he will receive £60,000.

Allowing for an unlikely 8-hour working day, that’s £750 an hour.

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Why the GMB story isn’t what they say it is

This morning you don’t have to look too far across “the usual suspects” (ConHomePaul Staines by-name-and-nature … the Daily Mail) to find general satisfaction that the GMB union is slashing support to the Labour Party.

On the one hand, it is supposed to be the spiteful pay-back for Ed Miliband’s “reforms”. On the other, Paul Kenny sees it as the inevitable recognition of individual membership:

The GMB said its decision to reduce its funding for Labour reflected its estimate of the number of union members who would be willing to affiliate themselves to it individually following Mr Miliband’s change.

At the moment the union automatically affiliates 420,000 of its members to Labour, at £3 each per year,

It estimates about 50,000 of the 650,000 GMB members would actually choose to affiliate with Labour. This figure is derived from the number who took part in the Labour leadership contest in 2010, it said.

That amounts to saying no more than “no double membership”, which is far, far less than the Tory spin on a “Labour financial crisis”. On the contrary, if by some act of collective will all 50,000 committed former affiliates were to sign up for full Party membership, the Labour Party would be well into pocket:

  • 420,000 @ £3 per head per annum = £1,260,000 a year
  • 50,000 @ £3.71 per head per month = £2,226,000 a year.

But, then, reason and logic are not what is expected from “the usual suspects”.

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A Pepys into the present

350 years ago, Mr Pepys described his yesterday (8th May 1662), thus:

At the office all the morning doing business alone, and then to the Wardrobe, where my Lady going out with the children to dinner I staid not, but returnedhome, and was overtaken in St. Paul’s Churchyard by Sir G. Carteret in his coach, and so he carried me to the Exchange, where I staid awhile. He told me that the Queen and the fleet were in Mount’s Bay on Monday last, and that the Queen endures her sickness pretty well. He also told me how Sir John Lawson hath done some execution upon the Turks in the Straight, of which I am glad, and told the news the first on the Exchange, and was much followed by merchants to tell it. So home and to dinner, and by and by to the office, and after the rest gone (my Lady Albemarle being this day at dinner at Sir W. Batten’sSir G. Carteret comes, and he and I walked in the garden, and, among other discourse, tells me that it is Mr. Coventry that is to come to us as a Commissioner of the Navy; at which he is much vexed, and cries out upon Sir W. Pen, and threatens him highly. And looking upon his lodgings, which are now enlarging, he in passion cried, “Guarda mi spada; for, by God, I may chance to keep him in Ireland, when he is there:” for Sir W. Pen is going thither with my Lord Lieutenant. But it is my design to keep much in with Sir George; and I think I have begun very well towards it. So to the office, and was there late doing business, and so with my head full of business I to bed.

All of which is annotated above.

Not quite ExCeLling

Malcolm’s day, yesterday, involved a jaunt to the ExCeL Centre (which must qualify as one of the more obtuse uses of cApItaLs going) for the Grand Designs Expo.

Malcolm freely confesses he is an addict of the Channel 4 programmedescribed on wikipedia as “a programme covering unusual and elaborate architectural homebuilding projects” — and Kevin McCloud. It all seems to come down to “how, given only a pile of straw bales and some imported Italian fenestration, we created a Palladian villa for the twenty-first century”. Definitely property-porn, and highly addictive.

The expo is Ideal Home for the epicene bourgeoisie. Much of it involves what Malcolm’s mother characterised as “more money than sense”. Over the years it has provided Redfellow Hovel with roof insulation and a nifty loft ladder. What is clear, however, is that the Great British Recession is hitting even this market demographic: this year a considerable space is devoted to electric cars.

Not by Boris

Getting to ExCeL , by public transport, from Norf Lunnun used to involve a convoluted passage via several underground lines and the Docklands Light Railway. We now have the revived, renewed East London Line, from Highbury & Islington, all the way to West Croydon and Crystal Palace. So it’s change at Shoreditch; and it works a treat. Those Class 378 electric multiple-units are nifty, too — though looking the length of a train, with no “proper” carriage divisions is a small eye-opener.

Thank you, Mayor Ken Livingstone, and those dear, dead enlightened days when Transport for London was more interested in shifting people than in vanity buses and perpetual fares increases.


The convenience of this new magic-carpet ride meant Malcolm missed out on his promised afternoon of indulgence involving Broadsides at the Bridge House, returning instead to Abbot and a pub steak at Highgate’s Gatehouse. Tough, really — or perhaps not (and the steak wasn’t). A pleasure deferred …

Anyway, Malcolm had an evening commitment.

Mr President

Brendan Barber may be “stepping down” as TUC General Secretary, but there’s a promotion in the pipe-line — to become President of Muswell Hill Golf Club.

Last night Brendan was doing his party-piece at Hornsey Labour Party, and wowing the troops.

The troops, of course, were already on a high: Joanne McCartney barely scraped home in the GLA 2008 vote — this time she is sitting on an absolute plurality, a majority of 25% with some 18% more of the vote. And the icing on the celebratory cake is the total collapse of the LibDem vote, now below 9½%: just 13,601 votes across the five parliamentary constituencies where there were 48,511 in the 2010 General Election.

Back to Brendan Barber

He hammered home one essential point: the massive bulk of the austerity cuts are still to come. That is generally well-appreciated, but his cruncher was, for every £ already cut, there are £16 more still to come.

That leads into:

Paul Waugh did a good bit of butchery on yesterday with Cameron and Clegg’s rose garden in a tractor factory:

The ‘We-Never-Promised-You-a-Rose-Garden’ summit was all set — and perfect for the early evening news.

That was the plan. Unfortunately, it suffered from a couple of flaws.

First, you just can’t get away from the fact that the PM and DPM just look awful together. These days, each is devalued by rather than reinforced by their lookalike.

Both wearing identikit suits, and only differentiated by the blue and yellow of their ties, it wasn’t a good look. (It’s no wonder the PM took his jacket off halfway through to distinguish himself from his partner). As one factory worker said “You two need to get your act together…” Cameron on his own looks much more at home on his PM Direct events.

Second, words are just as important as pictures. And the PM had some rather unfortunate words as he dropped his guard on the deficit. In answer to one question, he said:

“What you call austerity, I might call efficiency…”

Were one to take fair-mindedness to ridiculous extremes, it might just be possible to defend the present sado-masochistic monetarism on grounds of “efficiency”. But that only applies where we might be able to find “efficiency”. But the public expenditure, and the public debt continues to balloon — which is why the Cameroons argue those further 94% of “cuts” are necessary.

Brendan Barber takes that another way. When Osborne went with his first “emergency” budget, his pet-poodle, the Office of Budget Responsibility, calculated it involved around 300,000 more unemployed. The latest OBR forecast updates that from 300,000 to 700,000.

At which we should all have a sharp intake of breath. Since we have no fewer than seven Treasury ministers (Osborne, Alexander, Hoban, Gauke, Smith, Lord Sassoon and Maude — though the last is PMG and works out of the Cabinet Office), ably assisted by an army, four figures strong, of the brightest-and-best of the Civil Service, why do we need a further level of “responsibility” for the budget? Particularly when that “office” is 233% out in an essential prediction?

There seems to be a bit of doubt on the quality of Pepys’ Spanish. The sense of Sir William Coventry’s irritation at Penn is patently clear, though. Similarly, one decent cut might be the useless OBR, so:

Guarda mi spada!

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“Hear the loud alarum bells —”

It’s Edgar Allan, albeit postumously:

Hear the loud alarum bells – 
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune …

There is, Malcolm sincerely believes, a venerable bell somewhere in Essex inscribed:

Success to the Church of England and no enthusiasm!

That dates it to the eighteenth century, when “enthusiasm” amounted to John Wesley’s Methodism.

This all neatly (at least to Malcolm’s contorted mind) equates to Charles Moore’s remarkable column for the Telegraph. In Moore’s case, the message seems to be:

Success to the Tory Party, and no modernisers.

The particular target is Francis Maude, who is the Aunt Sally of the moment:

When I first heard Francis Maude’s suggestion on Sky News that we might all stock up “a bit of extra fuel with a jerry can in the garage”, I did not, I must admit, panic. His remark seemed a little unwise – and you could hear, by the way he immediately began to qualify it, that he thought so too – but I let it pass.

What I was forgetting is that ministerial words about an immediate problem with basics like fuel or food is the only sort of ministerial statement which people believe. It was like when Edwina Currie, the then junior health minister, said in 1988 that most egg production was infected with salmonella. People stopped buying eggs. After Mr Maude spoke, they swarmed to the petrol pumps.

Moore is surely correct in his assumption that the whole “let’s bash Labour by inventing a fuel crisis” ploy was profoundly misconceived and appallingly implemented:

No doubt many people reading this column are happy that Ed Miliband’s and Ed Balls’s dependence on a large trade union should be exposed, but very few, I suspect, appreciate being made into mugs. (And the political effect, of course, is the opposite of that intended: Unite now looks virtuous, and is much better placed to win its demands.)

So this gerrymandering with jerry cans, along with the rows about pasties, dinners for donors and granny taxes, sheds light on the present discontent. People detect selfishness.

So the argument is widened, and neatly so:

As modernisers such as Mr Maude rightly never tire of pointing out, voters judge politicians more on motive than on policy. It may sound an odd thing to say on the day after George Galloway got back into Parliament, but what people crave is authenticity.

Quite what is “authenticity” in politics is debatable. Blair (“I am a pretty straight sort of guy“) tried — and fell spectacularly short. Cameron has proved, in this too, to be the “heir to Blair”. Moore has all of that, and more.

When such as Moore rings an alarum, things are getting desperate:

Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek …

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