Sarah Ingham: Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

23 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Why is so much art in Britain’s public realm either ugly, witless or pointless?

Never mind Rhodes Must Fall, a goodly percentage of the statues, murals and installations in the country’s public spaces should be consigned to the scrapheap.

As well as being a battleground in the nation’s intensifying culture war, the debate on public art went back to basics a few weeks ago, thanks to the unveiling of the Diana memorial statue. Suddenly we were also judging a piece on its aesthetics; how it looks – rather than how we look as we pronounce judgement.

Sadly, the public was none-too-impressed by the pewter Princess. Drawing comparisons with a traditional religious Madonna, The Times’ art critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston elevated the debate. Her piece was however headlined “Laura Ashley monument is little better than the usual tat“.

In the hysterical rush to the barricades to defend or attack representations of Britain’s long-dead and usually long-forgotten worthies, few have paused to look – really look – at the works in question. Rhodes should fall – or at least be turned to face the wall of Oxford’s Oriel College – not least because it is a pretty dire representation of such a key player in 19th century colonial history.

There is a certain irony that the Croesus-rich racist white supremacist looks vaguely Asiatic and that his baggy suit is more Albert Steptoe than Savile Row. If the sculptor had been more skilled, gravy stains and dandruff could probably be discerned. This rendering of Rhodes is less The Three Graces than utterly graceless.

Why are Tory Councillors in Essex Censoring Artwork?” demanded The Guardian on Monday. The work in question – a small hexagonal-shaped rose garden framed by three ordinary benches – can be found in a park in Shoeburyness and is part of the Estuary Festival. An English Garden created by Gabriella Hirst is apparently a commentary on Britain’s 1950s nuclear weapons industry. This seems more than a bit of a stretch, even when we learn the roses are a breed called Atom Bomb.

It’s not this drearily anodyne artwork to which some are objecting but the wording on the accompanying plaque. But having to read a work rather than be moved by it is usually a signal to expect bad art and worse prose. It’s always contextualisation, never explanation.

Instead of asking why councillors are censoring artwork, we should be asking why they are not. Indeed, too often they are cheerleaders-in-chief for incongruous cultural blots on our landscapes and ugly blight in our town centres.

A tour of public art in Surrey is to realise that the closest most works get to great is the vaguely Matisse-blue of Bisley’s  quirky Millennium clock tower which seems inspired by a cross between a dovecote and Big Ben. Woking is littered with creepy, garishly-painted oversized figures. Sean Henry’s seven-feet-tall Walking Women is the latest in the series of “much-loved sculptures” declares #WeAreWoking.

If the aim is really “to create new, stimulating and high-quality environments that revitalise public spaces and recognise the importance of culture”, it has failed. The sculptures bring to mind a Zombie Apocalypse, perhaps written about by HG Wells. He is commemorated by the War of the Worlds Martian Tripod, a piece in chrome which is as breathtakingly bad as the giant cockerel with which a former council leader lumbered a Dorking roundabout. Staines offers us the Swan Arches which bring to mind Saddam Hussein’s crossed swords Hands of Victory monument in Baghdad.

Surrey is far from the only sorry place where recent installations of art in the public realm are not fit to be placed near local war memorials. Thankfully, there is beauty in their very simplicity. They have stood the test of time and are a rebuke to “much-loved sculptures” and other pieces of junk foisted upon us.

Art is subjective. One woman’s Venus de Milo is another’s Aphrodite at the Waterhole created by Tony Hancock in The Rebel. Public art, however, raises questions that are too rarely asked. Who decides? Who decides who decides? Who’s paying? Over the last decade matters have been further complicated by the Community Infrastructure Levy, the charge levied on developers, often in addition to the existing Section 106 obligations. Has this caused an upsurge in “art” for art’s sake?

In a bid to curb the nuisance of noisy supercars racing through the streets of the Royal Borough, Kensington and Chelsea Council is seeking to extend its “acoustic camera” scheme funded by the CIL. Judging by the crowds drawn to Sloane Street where wannabe-Hamiltons regularly show off their wheels, the dozens of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and McLarens are perceived to be far more beautiful than any works of numerous works of art in the area, including the majestic Wellington Arch Quadriga at Hyde Park Corner. The cameras are a far more resident-friendly way to spend CIL than frittering it away on ugly installations.

Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth has recently been home to a giant blob of cream topped by a red cherry, a black fly (echoes of Damien Hirst 25+years ago) and a drone. The work of Heather Phillipson, it was called THE END.

If only.

Sarah Ingham: The NHS failed the nation during the pandemic. Awarding it the George Cross was a mistake.

9 Jul

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: it’s impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

It’s been a bad week for the heretics among us who do not worship at the altar of Britain’s National Health Service.

Unlike Lord Ashcroft (of this parish), the news that the NHS was being awarded the George Cross did not cause our souls to rejoice, but our hearts to sink. And with even Her Majesty the Queen being caught up in the cult of this over-mighty bureaucracy, NHS naysayers started to wonder how long it would be before they were treated like religious dissenters of old – and burned at the stake. Matt Hancock can easily be pictured setting a flaming torch to the faggots.

The secret of the Queen’s success during her exemplary reign is being above politics. By allowing her to become so personally invested in the award to an institution which is the most bitterly fought over by the country’s politicians, Her Majesty’s Government has dragged the monarch into the political murk. Should Nicola Sturgeon seek the royal imprimatur for Scotland’s separate health service, could the Queen refuse the request? What if the London Fire Brigade lets it be known that it too considers itself deserving of recognition for “acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger”?

The George Cross can now join banging on pots and badly-drawn rainbows in the NHS reliquary. Witnessing this national idolisation of an institution which has neglected its elderly patients to the extent they drank the water from flower vases is as close as we will get in the 21st century to experiencing the mass hysteria which led to the 1212 Children’s Crusade.

Britain does indeed offer world-class healthcare – if voters are prepared to pay extra for it on top of their taxed income. And despite the ongoing fiction that all in Britain are fully committed to what the Prime Minister called “our greatest national asset, the NHS”, an increasing number simply by-pass it.

With 5.1 million currently on the NHS waiting list, a figure that Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, finds “shocking”, more might go down the path of private healthcare. This is of course the option they choose for their pets, minus censorious judgements about “jumping the queue”. They will be joining the estimated five million who already have health insurance, as well as those who happily pay to see a private healthcare practitioner on an ad hoc basis.

Why the taboo surrounding the extensive reach of the private sector into Britain’s healthcare? As the King’s Fund reported in March, “private companies have always played a role in the NHS”. It adds, “identifying NHS spending on the private sector is not straightforward” but suggests that some estimates put it at 25 per cent. (Thanks to the byzantine manner in which NHS GPs are funded, some now include them in the ‘private’ sector.)

Any talk about private healthcare, let alone its involvement in the NHS, prompts foaming-at-the-mouth denunciation from most politicians. Such hysterical over-reaction might be a cue to seek medical help – if only public sector doctors were available. Many NHS GPs shut up shop for the duration of the pandemic: should “Dr No” now deign to be available in person rather than via Zoom, they might give a patient seven minutes – often only to prescribe yet more antibiotics, contributing to the under-reported threat to Britain’s hospitals of antimicrobial resistance.

NHS cultists are dishonest and in denial. If we could afford it, most would leap at the chance of a face-to-face consultation with a private doctor within hours of calling their surgery for an appointment. According to the Association of Dental Groups, one-third of us, including Love Island contestants by the look of things, already visit private dentists. The Queen’s experience of NHS hospitals is surely limited to opening them. King Edward VII’s Hospital, where Matron gives good curtsey, is like a country house hotel off Harley Street.

Last year, following his brush with Coronavirus, the Prime Minister paid effusive tribute both to the NHS and St Thomas’s staff. On its website, the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust openly pitches for private patients, especially from overseas. It promises “exceptional care in a safe, trusted and comfortable environment”. Whether the country’s most famous NHS patient had a view of “iconic London landmarks” from his hospital bed, it is unlikely he would have been given food unfit for a dog, the experience of many up and down the land while under NHS care. Indeed, the PM probably only had to worry about the depth of the pile of the red carpet.

With seven million not coming forward treatment since March last year, including for cancer and heart disease, it is an utter falsehood to claim that the NHS was overwhelmed during the Covid crisis. Why did it have to requisition private sector capacity? The supreme irony is that the health and wellbeing of a large proportion of our population have been sacrificed to “protect the NHS”. This is a service which chose to discharge elderly Covid-infected patients back into care homes: given the deaths caused, they might as well as have been psychopaths with AK-47s.

Originally published in 1973 by the feminist Boston Women’s Health Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves argued that each individual woman was the best judge when it came to her own health and healthcare choices. Thanks to the worship of the NHS, healthcare choice remains an anathema in Britain in 2021 where politicians remain deaf to any rational discussion about the Service’s huge shortcomings and need for reform.

The collectivist Second World War not only cemented the position of the BBC but led to the creation of the NHS. In our multi-platform digital age, it is no wonder that the national broadcaster funded by compulsory taxation shills for a national health service.

The NHS failed the nation during the pandemic.

By George, it’s past its sell-by date.

Sarah Ingham: COIN against Covid. We have to live with the Taliban. And with the virus.

26 Jun

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: it’s impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

‘And gentlemen in England now a-bed, / Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here …’

Shakespeare is surely at his most rousing when Henry V delivers his eve-of-battle speech before Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day 1415.

Conversely, the long-anticipated Freedom Day 2021 dawned on Monday and the gentlemen of England, like the rest of British people, probably pressed the snooze button. After all, apart from those happy few grooving around for sun-up at Stonehenge, thanks to the Government’s refusal to lift social distancing restrictions, it was business as usual for most of us: same mask, different day.

For the past 15 months since the introduction of the first lockdown, the Government has reacted to Covid-19 as if the virus were an existential threat to the United Kingdom. Never mind the 13 Days in October 1962 of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in four days in March 2020 Britain went from “squashing the sombrero” to being told by the Prime Minister “We must act like any war time government and do what it takes to support our economy.” He added: “The enemy can be deadly but it is also beatable.”

The Second World War might be receding from living memory but remains alive as the foundation myth of today’s Britain. ‘The Few’, the Blitz, Dunkirk, ‘fight them on the beaches’, actual fighting on the beaches during the Normandy Landings…Finest Hours are remembered; episodes such as the fall of Singapore less readily recalled.

The unconditional surrender given to Montgomery by what remained of Germany’s high command at Lüneberg Heath on 4th May 1945 provided Britain with a conclusive end to war in Europe. It is unlikely that Churchill would still be so venerated without such a decisive victory.

It was perhaps inevitable that a nation like Britain, forged by conflict over the centuries and always up for a fight, would happily accept its government turning a public health emergency into a re-run of country’s twentieth century total wars.

Although for the past 15 months there have been continued warnings about virus’s impact on the NHS, from Dominic Cummings’ testimony it was the machinery of government, including Number Ten, which seems to have been ‘overwhelmed’ in last Spring. Amid the chaos, panic and confusion, what better reassurance than to invoke than our island heritage (and Churchill’s Our Island Heritage), with its reminders that adversity will always be overcome?

Britain has been battling a deadly enemy; we have a frontline; heroes (including frontline workers, bus drivers and Captain Tom); casualties (128,008 if within 28 days of a positive test; 152,490 with Covid 19 on the death certificate, according to the government’s Coronavirus dashboard for 22nd June) and Vera Lynn (“We will meet again”, pledged the Queen).

In the campaign against corona, we have also been subjected to non-stop propaganda. Instead of gas masks we have mandatory, if useless, face coverings. In an echo of the military unpreparedness of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939, there was the almost criminal absence of readiness by our health bureaucracies to deal with a pandemic.

As troublingly, just as the Coalition Government introduced the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act of May 1940 which demanded everyone ‘place themselves, their services and their property’ at the state’s disposal, for the past 15 months the Johnson government has trashed our civil liberties.

With Britain’s political leaders almost over-balanced by the Covid emergency, it made sense to reach for the comfort blanket of the Second World War. This is especially true for a Prime Minister who hero-worships Churchill. Not only is it a past which is familiar, almost to the point of national obsession, but is comparatively uncontested. (Although be on standby for an Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris statue controversy to be confected sometime soon.) The 1939-45 conflict is increasing perceived as ‘The People’s War’, involving the whole nation in collective effort and sacrifice.

Despite the grandiose global war context frequently invoked, alas the 16-month campaign against Covid-19 is more akin to the messy, inconclusive ‘small wars’ and counter-insurgencies (COIN) in which British forces have been involved since 1945, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In October 2014, the Union Jack was lowered in Helmand’s Camp Bastian ending British combat operations in Afghanistan. Renewed by the Blair government following the 2004 NATO summit, Operation Herrick was meant to be a reconstruction exercise. As John Reid declared in April 2006, ‘We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years’ time without firing one shot.’ Before the end of the summer, out-numbered and poorly-equipped British troops were embroiled in a series of Rorke’s Drifts against the Taliban in the hardest fighting since Korea.]

Today, 15 years on, a thousand British Army personnel are in Kabul. Keen to end the ‘forever war’ after 20 years, Joe Biden has announced the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan where the Taliban are re-asserting control.

The mission creep characterising Britain’s most recent misadventure in Afghanistan is mirrored by the Government’s campaign against the virus. Ministers have lurched from protecting the NHS – which is supposed to protect us – to what looks like zero Covid. But just as the international community is going to have to accommodate the Taliban, we are going to have to live with the virus.

With MPs none-too-bothered about holding the Executive to account, they have plenty of time on their hands to reflect on a Covid-Great War campaign comparison: chateau generalship. The collective sacrifice relentlessly demanded of voters is far from shared by their leaders, as the Carbis Bay G7 jollities and the restriction-free VIP access to the Euro 2021 final highlight.

Let’s not forget how voters turned their back on Churchill and Conservatives in 1945. The party’s current MPs should be asking themselves whether aspects of the forever Corona Campaign were a factor in last week’s loss of Chesham and Amersham.

Sarah Ingham: Tech, tax – and out of this world wealth

12 Jun

Sarah Ingham is a writer and a Conservative Party member.

It’s been a good week for Chancellor of the Exchequer and a so-so seven days for the richest man on the planet, Jeff Bezos.

The agreement between G7 Finance Ministers to introduce a global minimum tax rate of 15 per cent on businesses was hailed as historic by Rishi Sunak. This should lead to “the largest multinational tech giants paying their fair share of tax in the UK”.

“About time too!” cries Britain, nodding in approval at this “seismic tax reform” – ©No 11 Downing Street.

The full consequences of the tech revolution we have been living through for the past two decades or so are, as yet, unknown. Dot dot dot com. The most tangible IRL effect can be seen in the nation’s high streets which have been hollowed out by the switch to online shopping and services such as banking.

In 2006 – tech world’s pre-iPhone Pleistocene epoch – online sales accounted for 2.8 per cent of total retail sales in Britain, according to the Office for National Statistics. By June 2019, this had risen to 18.3 per cent. In January this year, a whopping 36.3 per cent of all retail sales were online. Lockdown, the government’s chosen response to Covid-19, accelerated an existing trend.

In March, USDAW highlighted that many retailers and their employees were at ‘breaking point’, with 180,000 jobs lost and 16,000 store closures in 2020. Famous names went into administration, including Laura Ashley and Jaeger. While Debenhams and the Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop, live to fight another day as brands, the rescue package for both did not include the bricks-and-mortar stores, resulting in 25,000 job losses, 80 per cent of them women employees.

Months before the Covid virus decimated the travel industry, Thomas Cook collapsed, stranding 150,000 holidaymakers abroad. Founded in 1841, the travel agency toppled under the weight of old-fashioned debt as much as innovations in the sector. The firm’s slogan ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it’ became as redundant as its 560 town centre stores, because millions of us chose to cut out the middleman and book a trip ourselves. A few clicks on a smart device secured us a budget airline ticket to fly us to our Airbnb.

How concerned have we been about the advance of e-commerce? Online shopping can be seen a quicker, easier, twenty-first century version of mail order catalogues, which have been a huge social benefit ever since the mid nineteenth century.

‘Don’t Be Evil’ has now been removed from Google’s code of conduct. Turning Britain’s social fabric inside-out is not exactly evil, but has been far from an unalloyed public benefit. It is, however, too easy to blame the tech giants, rather than examining our own code of conduct as individual consumers: ‘Alexa, save my local bookshop.’ Communities are not built or sustained by us sitting on our backsides watching a movie on Netflix while we tuck into a Deliveroo.

‘As public finances are ever more strained due to Covid-19, the public’s tolerance for tax avoidance by multinational companies is nil,” declares the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, in its Secretary-General Tax Report to G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors. Really? Tax evasion is illegal and tests public tolerance. Tax avoidance is about exploiting the loopholes caused by an unnecessarily complex taxation system overseen by finance ministers and central bank governors.

The OECD worked on the proposals to rewrite the global tax rules which are being advanced by Sunak and his G7 colleagues. In the days since the announcement confusion has arisen, not least about whether any changes will be agreed by the G20 and if Britain is seeking to get financial services excluded from the reforms.

Alexa, is the UK’s Digital Services Tax going to be scrapped in exchange for the global tech tax? Effective from April 2020, HMRC predicted it would raise £515 million by 2024/25. It seems that tech firms might actually pay less into the UK’s coffers if the reforms were adopted and digital sales tax abolished.

The tech titans themselves seemed none-too-bothered by this possible new assault on their finances. Apart from Netflix, the other four FAANGs – Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google – have seen their share prices rise in the past week.

Just as possible changes to the international tax system have come onto the agenda, details of US billionaires’ tax returns have mysteriously found their way into the public domain. Tada!

Warren Buffett is among the Croesus-rich outed by investigative journalists at ProPublica as paying little or nothing in the way of income tax. Perhaps the OECD’s Tax Inspectors Without Borders team can explain to breathless hacks the difference between income and capital.

Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, whose personal wealth has ping-ponged around the $200 billion mark since last August, apparently paid no income tax during 2007 and 2011, while Tesla’s Elon Musk, vying with Bezos for pole position in the global wealth stakes, paid none in 2018. Neither has done anything illegal. The public was probably far less tolerant of Amazon withholding tips to its delivery drivers, for which it was fined $62 million in February.

Perhaps their stratospheric wealth explains Bezos and Musk’s fascination with space exploration. It would be easy to write off the attitude of both as ‘only little earthlings pay taxes’, but the current taxation system, bound up as it is with national sovereignty, allows them to get away with it. If we had the money, and the money to afford the accountants, we’d probably all be into ‘tax planning’, which is fancy pants for haggling with HMRC.

Time for flat taxes, Chancellor. And, BTW, voters have a tolerance for keeping their own money rather than handing it over in taxes – even to you.

Sarah Ingham: A blue party + green promises = yellow vests

29 May

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

Among the Met Office’s list of storm names for 2021 are Heulwen – Welsh for sun-blessed if not for irony – and Saidhbhin.

Probably only those of us who won’t be needing to fill sandbags have enough time on our hands to fret about the tricky pronunciation of dhbh. The millions living in flood-risk areas will instead surely cheer this week’s announcement by the Environment Agency that it will default to low carbon concrete when constructing the nation’s flood defences.

With man-made climate change being blamed almost every time it rains – or fails to rain – on Britain’s green and pleasant land, it seems fitting that the quango charged with protecting us from flooding should be leading the charge on cutting carbon, arguably the cause of all the storms from Aiden to Wilson and the accompanying floods which have beset the country in recent years.

During the week political attention was focused on Dominic Cumming’s truth bombs in his marathon select committee appearance (which rivals the Duke of Sussex’s vengeful confessionals with Oprah), the EA’s dash towards carbon neutrality by the end of the decade will surely be welcomed by the Government. At least this State offshoot is fizzing with enthusiasm about Carbon Net Zero, rather than tipping a bucket of reality over it.

When it comes to ripping out the domestic gas boilers which currently provide the heat and hot water for 30 million homes, ministers might be following the net zero science, but cautious householders would probably prefer to listen to experts.

Just as the EA was issuing its statement, Pimlico Plumbers’ boss Charlie Mullins, who probably knows his way around condensate drain traps better than most MPs, was pouring cold water on targets to substitute our trusty gas combis for net zero-friendly alternatives, including heat pumps or biomass boilers. Mullins’ message to the Government, as reported by the Daily Mail? ‘Get real.’

Deadlines for Britain to go greener are fast approaching. Gas boilers are to be banned from new homes in 2025, and banished forever by 2035, while sales of new petrol and diesel cars are to be outlawed by 2030. As the recent Queen’s Speech reminded us, the United Kingdom is committed to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

A legally binding target was set by the May administration and waved through in June 2019 by the discredited Zombie Parliament, probably hoping to bathe in redemptive greenwash. Last month, the Johnson Government trumped this by enshrining in law a new target to slash emissions by 78 per cent by 2035.

Conservatives are meant to conserve, so why not save the planet? But the warm glow of doing the right thing is not going to make up for the absence of central heating when our gas boilers are consigned to the scrap heap. Hydrogen boilers are hardly off the drawing board. In an interview with Andrew Marr, Jo Biden’s Climate Tsar, John Kerry, conceded the highly inconvenient truth that half the technology to get us to Net Zero has not yet been invented.

The global lockdown delivered the sort of cuts to energy use and emissions which were beyond the wildest dreams of Greta Thunberg, Greenpeace and Plane Stupid combined. According to the National Grid, demand for power in Britain fell by as much as 20 per cent. Flexible working has reduced the EA’s emissions from business travel by 48 per cent and from buildings by 22 per cent.

Kerry insists that we don’t have compromise our quality of life in order to cut emissions. Step forward Elon Musk, able to square high-end conspicuous consumption with the circle, nay halo, of eco-responsibility. Unlike the pious Prius, Musk’s Tesla makes electric cars the objects of desire. Available next year, the Model S Plaid+ will have a projected top speed of 200mph. And a price tag of about £140,000, which won’t be payable in Bitcoin. Musk recently tweeted that Tesla would not accepting the cryptocurrency because of its environmental impact – just before his Gulfstream landed in Luton.

As the Government ushers us towards the net zero future, it had better be sure of the science. The unintended consequences of getting this wrong will dwarf Labour’s debacle over diesel. As Chancellor, Gordon Brown levied cheaper car tax on diesel vehicles, which emitted lower carbon but higher pollutants, ultimately contributing to Britain’s poorer air quality.

Similarly, the pursuit of biodiversity was a factor in the EA’s decision not to dredge the Somerset Levels. Man-made ignorance of historical practise rather than man-made climate change caused the catastrophic floods of 2013/14.

If polls show that voters favour going green, they are not voting Green. In 2019, when we were in the grip of the Climate Emergency apocalypse now, with Greta berating the UN (‘how dare you?’) and Extinction Rebellion clogging London’s streets with its crusties, pink boat and showboating actor Emma Thompson, the Green Party won two million votes and seven seats in the Euro Elections. A fair result but outshone by the Brexit Party. Although they wanted a very different outcomes, both the Greens and Nigel Farage’s followers demanded seismic national change.

In this month’s elections, the Greens failed to gained seats to Wales’ Senedd, won just six per cent of the seats in the Scottish Parliament and garnered 358 votes in Hartlepool. A reasonable showing in the Bristol mayoral race is hardly a national mandate for the policies they advocate.

‘Let them drive Teslas’. The 2018/19 Gilets Jaunes protests in France were in part provoked by green taxes imposed by the Macron government, whose well-to-do members were perceived as increasingly out-of-touch.

Vote Blue, Go Green was a Cameron-era slogan for the Conservative Party. In going green, the current government must ensure voters in the blue and red walls never have to reach for their yellow vests.

It’s pronounced sigh-veen.

Sarah Ingham: Fat is a lockdown issue

15 May

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

Thanks to the Daily Mail we know that today is not only 15th May 2021 but Day 418 of Lockdown. On Monday, the government is granting us another small sliver of liberty, but irksome restrictions will continue.

The panicked and disproportionate response by the State to the Covid-19 is the ultimate decades-in-the-making triumph for the health and safety culture which characterises the country’s public sector.

The elderly in months of solitary confinement in care homes, masked school children in playground bubbles, funeral mourners ordered to separate, police officers ruling that a takeaway tea constitutes a picnic…It’s all too reminiscent of a callous and irrational mindset that denies a last consoling cigarette to Death Row inmates about to be executed.

As a captive audience under house arrest for months since March 2020, the British public has been bombarded by Government health warnings. The country’s health honchos have bustled into our homes via our screens. Graphs, charts, statistics, variants, R-rates, two metres, tiers…but not obesity.

Given the relentless nagging over the years by state-backed quango queens on every facet of our health, their comparative silence over the links between weight and the world’s latest coronavirus has been deafening.

This time last year as Covid raged, we kept on hearing about ‘underlying health conditions’ which seemed to be further imperilling younger victims of the virus. These mysterious afflictions were never spelt out. Last month, The Lancet published a paper exploring the link between weight and Covid-19. The study, Associations between Body-Mass Index and Covid-19 Severity in 6.9 million people in England (Min Gao et al) states ‘obesity is a major risk factor for adverse outcomes after infection with SARS-CoV-19’.

In the context of the Covid crisis, the country’s corpulence has usually been the, er, elephant in Number 10’s briefing room. When the virus struck him last year, Boris Johnson acknowledged that it was his sizeable girth which landed him in hospital. Today, still more Falstaff than lean and hungry Cassius, the Prime Minister could be the ideal figurehead to lead the national charge, or waddle, back to health.

An episode of Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge asked whether anyone would trade five years of their lives for the perfect body. This provoked horror among those who are on a permanent trigger to denounce fat-shaming.

Today, we are hearing much less about the plus-size body positivity. Ministers, MPs and health officials might want to duck a difficult subject that affects that majority of voters, but the virus has highlighted the deadly consequences of being overweight.

Long before the Covid-19 arrived, the country had a hefty problem. According to the NHS’s 2020 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, the majority of the country – 63 per cent – were overweight; 28 per cent of adults were classified as obese, along with one fifth of Year Six children. In 2018/19, there were 11,117 hospital admissions in England ‘with a primary diagnosis of obesity’ and 876,000 admissions where obesity was a factor in diagnosis.

The Government spent £184 million on Covid-related comms last year, according to Campaign, the ad industry’s bible. All this expensive messaging bossing us to follow its guidance to ‘Stay Home’ has actually worsened the nation’s collective weight problem. In turn, this will worsen the impact of Covid and other illnesses for many sufferers. The best way to ‘Protect the NHS’ and to save lives, and improve the quality of life, is for us to get off the couch, into our trainers and out of our front doors. Almost five million are now on NHS waiting lists for treatment. ‘Patient, heal thyself’ is however unlikely to be a State-backed message.

Pre-vaccine, the most vulnerable to the coronavirus were the elderly. Unlike being old and frail, being overweight is a matter of personal responsibility and active choice. Or rather inactive choice, involving too little movement and too much sugar, including alcohol. Many would like to go down a few sizes but are simply not prepared for the joyless slog.

Few are like Adele, who was in the news last year not for another album release or Grammy but for losing seven stone, calling for the sort of iron self-discipline that most of us are too lazy to summon up. And anyone who simply blames poverty for excess poundage has clearly never set foot in the Cobham branch of Waitrose, Surrey’s mothership of middle-class affluence.

Right now, we have the worst of all worlds. The State continues to restrict personal freedom in a bid, it claims, to save life, while at the same time trying to avoid spelling out the risks to life caused by excess weight.

For the past year, we have collectively sacrificed our freedom, mental health, children’s education and livelihoods to protect the vulnerable from the impact of Covid-19. How far the State continues restricting our freedom of movement will be demonstrated all too vividly later in the month as football fans travel, or not, to Porto for the Champions League final. It is surely now time for those who deliberately choose to make themselves vulnerable to illness, including Covid-19, to start reflecting on their choices and their responsibilities to wider society.

Lockdown was, in part, the sacrifice of liberty to gluttony. Fat is no longer just a feminist issue, as Susie Orbach identified back in 1978, but one that all of us must confront. Without sugar coating.

Sarah Ingham: Could we hear less of Symonds, please? And more from Conservative Ministers.

1 May

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

It’s curtains for the Prime Minister. As well as a sofa and some wallpaper.

The Cash for Cushions (and sundry furnishings) saga seems a heady old school mix, combining Are You Being Served? with Yes, Prime Minister. On Wednesday, the John Lewis marketing team treated its devoted middle-Britain fan base to a masterclass in crisis management. Reports that the Johnson-Symonds’ household wanted to rid themselves of the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ at their No11 flat prompted the company to tweet.

With an image of one of its vans outside Downing Street captioned ‘a good thing we have a recycling service for pre-loved furniture’, its response was less musty Grace Brothers and more that other band of brothers; Sonny, Fredo and Michael Corleone. The company’s motto ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ should be replaced with Winston Churchill’s ‘Never Let a Crisis go to Waste’.

John Lewis’s fleet-footed riposte to the reported bashing of its brand is a lesson for Number Ten – and in particular for the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds. The former £80,000 a year Conservative Party communications’ chief seems to find it tricky to read the metaphorical room – especially, it seems, one decorated in anything from the lighting department in Peter Jones’ basement.

At the root of the current controversy over exactly who paid what and when for the refurb of the Prime Ministerial residence is concern about unaccountable influence over public policy.

Prime Ministers’ personal lives, which might include a taste for super-Sloane Soane soft furnishings, should not become a matter of public interest. And an unelected partner of any politician should never be suspected of meddling in policy.

Regrettably for Symonds, too many stories have appeared in the media about her sticking her oar in – for example, over badgers from being culled last summer, or the appointment of senior Downing Street staff.

Symonds’ supporters refuse to accept that any unaccountable influence wielded by her is a legitimate area of inquiry. Whenever the subject is brought up, unhelpfully for her, some, including Caroline Nokes, the Women and Equalities Committee Chair, attempt to shut it down with accusations of sexism and misogyny.

If anything is ‘dunked in 1950s sexism’ in Lord (Zac) Goldsmith’s memorable tweet attacking Symonds’ critic Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday, it is the outdated concept of the First Lord of the Treasury’s plus-one. Boundaries are blurred because 10 Downing Street is both Prime Ministerial home and workplace: there must be an enormous temptation for every day to be Take Your Squeeze to Work Day.

Just as voters do not pay good money for a ticket to a Premier League match to see footballers’ WAGs on the pitch, partners do not need to clutter up the Downing Street machine.

Johnson follows two female Prime Ministers – a decent-ish record for the Conservative Party, which has done much to get more women elected to Parliament and into local government in the past two decades.

Alas, for most of the year-long Covid crisis, the Government has chosen almost consistently to field an all-male team as its public face: Johnson, Hancock, Shapps, often Jenrick, with Sunak on the subs’ bench.

This snubbing of women who have actually gone to the trouble of getting themselves democratically elected makes the perceived reach of the unelected Symonds all the more toxic. What message does the Johnson administration and the Conservative Party want to send to women about their role in public life in 202? The current power-behind-the-throne optics are less dunked than steeped.

Haunted by Bill Clinton’s assertion to US voters they would be getting two-for-the-price-of-one, Hillary Clinton could only look feminists in the eye when in her own right she became a Senator in 2001. Unhappily for this talented woman, her unpopularity as interfering First Lady would never be properly erased when it came to her Presidential bid in 2016.

In contrast to Clinton, the quantum chemist, Prof Joachim Sauer, has been so low profile he is almost invisible in Germany where his wife, Angela Merkel, has been Chancellor since 2005. The Sauer approach, emulated recently by Sarah Brown and Philip May, is surely the least corrosive to public goodwill.

During the week, it was reported that the magnificent Baroness Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker, was being reprimanded for not attending an unconscious bias training course put on the benefit of members of the House of Lords, the equally doughty Arlene Foster announced her resignation as Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader.

Less helpfully for any women seeking inspirational political role models, Ursula von der Leyen confided she felt ‘hurt and left alone’ after her own problems with furniture at a meeting with Turkey’s President Erdogan, when she was isolated on a sofa. Never mind left alone: didn’t the dignity of her office demand she immediately leave the meeting, rather than subsequently tweet that the episode showed ‘how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals’? Perhaps von der Leyen should be a tad more mindful of the Suffragette slogan ‘Deeds not Words’.

As a comms specialist, Symonds would surely acknowledge the genius of the John Lewis tweets. The Prime Minister’s declaration of love for the brand and Sir Keir’s stampede to a store is recognition of its place in voters’ hearts.

As a political insider, however, she might well have winced at the sight of the furniture van on Whitehall next to the wrought-iron Downing Street gates. Another trifling ‘farrago of nonsense’ beside those gates grew and grew into Pleb-gate until it was curtains for a Ministerial career.

Sarah Ingham: Greensill – not so much “what does Jeremy think?” as “what on earth was Jeremy thinking?”

17 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

The Greensill controversy has come like pennies from heaven – and definitely not in a brown envelope – for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

After a year as Labour leader, his personal Key Stage 1, SKeir Starmer’s approval ratings are at best tepid. Unsurprisingly at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, he sought to join various dots – ‘dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates’ – to conjure up a picture of the return of Tory sleaze.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions clearly wishes to make the case that this Conservative administration is as tainted by corruption as John Major’s was almost three decades ago.

Sir Keir might have leapt on the Greensill bandwagon a tad hastily, without really knowing where it might end up. Although a former Conservative Prime Minister is ostensibly the star of the saga, it is becoming clear that this is might not be a story about Westminster, but Whitehall; about mandarins, not MPs and ministers.

Photographed with Lex Greensill, David Cameron’s very own Deal in the Desert raises a number of questions, not least whether the Aussie has shares in R.M Williams. But surely the most famous blue-suited bromance since Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper were at Centre Court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Final – however funny-odd the image is – has begun to fade compared with the more recent revelations about civil servants’ moonlighting.

The United Kingdom’s Chief Procurement Officer oversees a budget of £40 billion. The demands of looking after that huge amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money apparently failed to preclude a side-hustle of working for Greensill for a couple of months. And it seems that Bill Crothers’ ‘one man, two guvnors’ approach might not be an isolated instance in Whitehall.

On Thursday, Lord Pickles, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which guides former ministers and civil servants on outside employment, stated there ‘doesn’t seem to have been any boundaries at all’ between civil servants and the private sector.

The previous day at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson suggested that it was not clear that those boundaries ‘have been properly understood’, although he thought that ‘it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector.’

As Crothers’ former boss, the late Lord Heywood of Whitehall, found, private sector experience is complicated. What Does Jeremy Think?  written by his widow Suzanne, details his three-year mid-career stint at Morgan Stanley, a job he took up in early 2004 ‘following the three months of unpaid leave required by the Cabinet Office’).

On his return to the civil service, working for Gordon Brown in the Cabinet Office, Heywood’s banking experience and contacts proved invaluable following the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. Conversely, Morgan Stanley may have benefited from Heywood’s input in its pitch to work for QinetiQ, the former government defence research agency, which the bank hoped it would be able to help float on the Stock Exchange.

Ever since the Greensill story broke, the media has been gripped by an ethical panic, emulated this week by MPs. Sir Keir’s call for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the saga was defeated by 95 votes. This reminder of dismal political reality for the Opposition turns out to have been unnecessary. In a Parliamentary pile-on, no fewer than seven inquiries into lobbying have been set up, including by the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Such inquiries are pointless – creating as much hot air as the demands this week that Something Must Be Done. Something usually involves political grandstanding, followed by gratuitous legislation.

These inquiries should save themselves their time and our money by examining the existing ethical framework that governs the conduct of MPs, civil servants and others in the public sector. If the 1990s is being revisited by anyone trying to build a case concerning Conservative corruption, they should focus not on cash for questions, but the answers provided by Lord Nolan’s 1995 Report on Standards in Public Life.

This sets out expected ethical standards – including honesty, openness and integrity – because, as Nolan stated more than a generation ago, ‘people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie’.

In a 1993 MORI poll cited by Nolan, only 14 per cent of respondents generally trusted that politicians would tell the truth, opposed to 37 per cent trusting civil servants. MPs planning to involve themselves in Greensill autopsies should perhaps reflect on the finding that 69 per cent thought it wrong to accept free tickets to Wimbledon or other sporting events. Whether the public’s attitude towards freebies has changed since then is surely something to be considered by the Committee on Standards. Its on-going inquiry into the Code of Conduct for MPs is timely.

As Cabinet Secretary to two Prime Ministers and Head of the Home Civil Service, Heywood sought to modernise the mandarinate, while adhering to the overarching principles of public service, first set down in the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report: honesty, integrity and political impartiality.

Westminster and Whitehall are already bound by numerous laws and rules and, overseen by supervisory bodies such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The thickets of formal regulation that have grown up in the past few decades did not prevent Greensill or the MPs’ expenses’ scandal.

In January, the Standards Committee heard that the plethora of existing guidance can be ‘byzantine’. In his evidence, Graham Brady observed that something is lost if we move to a world where we are expecting absolute, detailed compliance with a detailed set of rules, ‘rather than an overarching expectation that members should behave with integrity and honesty’.

The rush towards Something Must Be Done should be paused. How about dusting off Nolan and Northcote-Trevelyan – and having a fresh look at ethics, values and standards, as well as the concept of trust?

Or, in another echo of the 1990s, going back to basics.

Sarah Ingham: We might have had a Juan Carlos or an Ernst August. Instead, we’ve had the Queen – and the Duke.

11 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

As the pomp and circumstance of a 41-gun salute led by the Royal Navy echoed around the United Kingdom and across the seas from noon on Saturday, it was a tribute to much more than a royal consort.

The passing of the Duke of Edinburgh has highlighted the towering contribution he made for more than seven decades in the service of this country, its people and the wider Commonwealth.

Like the Queen, to whom he swore fealty at the Coronation almost 70 years ago, he exemplified public service, duty and self-sacrifice.

Statistics compiled by the Press Association provide a snapshot of an extraordinary record; before his official retirement aged 96, he had undertaken 22,191 solo engagements and made 5,493 speeches. This does not include those ten of thousands of occasions he accompanied the Queen, both at home and abroad, in his chief role as Royal Consort. As an early Private Secretary, Michael Parker, explained: ‘He told me the first day he offered me my job, that his job, first, second and last, was never to let her down.’

For those of us daunted at the prospect of getting dressed up for a work do and an evening of indifferent food and small talk – if not tiny talk – with strangers, our sinking hearts must go out to the late Duke. Not for him crying off at the last minute or that extra glass of wine to help jolly things along. No looking bored or swallowing yawns, either. Year in, year out, he was permanently on parade.

The Duke’s decades as an exemplary consort would have been enough to earn him gratitude across the globe, but he gave so much more. He was involved in hundreds of charities, great and small, from the Society of Underwater Technology to the Junior Astronomical Society via the Alvis Owner Club. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was a counterpoint for millions of young people increasingly cocooned by a health and safety-obsessed culture, while the Duke himself wanted to build a green future long before the

Ecology Party became the Green Party. His concern about the under-reported problem of global over-population – a concern more recently shared by environmental scientist James Lovelock – is worth revisiting.

Like the majority of men his age, he had served the country in the Armed Forces during the Second World War, when he was mentioned in despatches. His anticipated life-time career in the Royal Navy was cut short with the Queen’s accession. Instead, he served Queen and country in a very different role.

In famously walking two paces behind The Queen, for decades Prince Philip offered the country moral leadership.

It is only following the Duke’s death that his qualities are being fully appreciated. In a pre-feminist era, many men would have baulked at publicly subordinating themselves to a woman. As the man in the shadows to a woman in the limelight, he pre-dated Denis Thatcher by more than a quarter of a century in time – and light years in public attitudes towards gender equality.

The Duke leaves behind a country where political leadership is not viewed as an honour in itself, but a potentially lucrative entry in the CV. His passing coincides with uncomfortable questions for David Cameron about lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, along with the general murkiness surrounding billions of pounds of Covid-related contracts which have led to accusations of cronyism.

For the Duke to have spent decades in the public eye beyond any reproach and above suspicion is testimony to him. Two examples in Europe point to might have been: King Juan Carlos and Prince Ernst August of Hanover. The former Spanish monarch was forced to abdicate and is now in exile following accusations of corruption, while the German prince last month received a suspended prison sentence for assaulting a police officer. Conversely, the Duke’s charge sheet seems to amount to handful of ill-chosen remarks.

Had he been a 26-year-old marrying into the Royal Family today rather than in 1947, much would have been made of his personal journey from stateless, penniless refugee to palace. Instead, as he said, ‘I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.’ This stoicism was apparent when he reflected on lost or wounded naval comrades. He observed: ‘It was part of the fortunes of war. We didn’t have counsellors rushing around every time somebody let off a gun . . . You just got on with it.’

The Duke was in hospital when Oprah Winfrey interviewed the Duke of Sussex. It is unimaginable that the Duke would ever have offered up to the media his unsettled childhood, his parents’ divorce or the history of his mother’s mental health in an effort to claim exculpatory victimhood and garner the sympathy of press and public. Following the loss of their patronages in February, the Sussexes declared: ‘We can all live a life of service. Service is universal.’ This underlines the generation gap between grandfather and grandson – and the gulf in their values.

In the hours after his death was announced, Boris Johnson stated that the Duke helped to steer the Royal Family and the Monarchy so that it remained an institution ‘indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.

On Friday evening the tenor bell at Westminster Abbey tolled 99 times, one for each year of the Duke’s life. The Queen has lost a beloved husband and the country has lost one of the most admirable public servants in its history.

Sarah Ingham: After the Batley protests and on this Easter Saturday, a case for tolerating religious belief

3 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

It says much about religion in this country that, during Holy Week, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened in the ongoing row about freedom of speech and Islam.

The head of the Anglican Communion told La Repubblica: “We have to be open to hearing things we really dislike.” Justin Welby spoke as the storm over faith and free speech continued. It was sparked by a cartoon image of Mohammed which was allegedly shown to students during a religious studies lesson at Batley Grammar School.

As protestors gathered outside the school gates at the end of last week, the teacher involved was suspended and is currently in hiding. He reportedly fears that he and his family will be killed. A spokesman for the Batley Parents and Community Partnership, Yunus Linat, stated that the image was offensive and Islamophobic. Their children should be able to attend school “without having their faith – which is protected in law – or their culture, ridiculed, insulted or vilified”.

For those defending freedom of expression, there is no reason in heaven or on earth why faith should not be ridiculed, insulted or vilified. The sacred must take its chances with the profane. In a letter to Gavin Williamson, Toby Young of the Free Speech Union called for the Department of Education’s guidance on British values to be amended to ensure free speech is prioritised.

In Britain, ‘we don’t do God’ too much. Should we go to church, most are not C of E, but C and E; Christmas and Easter. This is confirmed by the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission. It reports that in 2019, on average 690,000 attended Sunday services, but 1.1 million went to church at Easter, while 2.3 million did so at Christmas, when one third of received Communion.

Perhaps swayed by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair didn’t “do God” until after he left office. Of recent Prime Ministers, only Theresa May seemed entirely comfortable with public displays of faith. Regularly caught on camera leaving her parish church, the middle-England, Waitrose-shopping vicar’s daughter perfectly embodies the description of the Church of England being ‘the Tory party at prayer’.

Looking like a man born to read a lesson at Matins, David Cameron famously said his faith came and went, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns. In the Church Times, he also wrote about the Church of England being rooted in the fabric of nation. Describing churches in his Witney constituency that ‘take your breath away with their beauty, simplicity and serenity’, he called for Anglicans ‘to be more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.’

Since the Batley cartoon controversy broke, many commentators have rushed to the barricades to defend freedom of speech. Notably absent from the articles and blogs is any reproduction of the offending image, which allegedly first appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Given that it led to the 12 people being shot dead, it is unsurprising that few are in any hurry to reprint: je ne suis pas Charlie.

For the commentariat to treat this cartoon as radioactive but then demand it be shown in schools is baffling. It is almost as baffling as the clumsy decision to include it in a lesson plan, especially after the execution of French teacher Samuel Paty last October, after it was mendaciously claimed that he showed images of the Prophet to his students.

Ten years ago, the 2011 Census seemed to highlight a move away from religion – or more accurately, from Christianity. Some 14 million people in England and Wales – 25 per cent – answered ‘No Religion’, up from 7.7 million in 2001. About 2.7 million people identified as Muslim, up from 1.5 million in ten years. Although the number of those identifying as Christian had dropped since 2001, it still stood at 33.2 million, accounting for 59 per cent of those who replied.

As we await the results of the 2021 Census, its predecessor probably did little to gladden the heart of zealous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. A decade ago, its findings underlined that Britain is a Christian country, but one where, with his usual prescience, Prince Charles was correct in talking about being a future defender of faiths.

Much of the comment surrounding recent events at Batley Grammar School has vilified sincerely held religious belief, while suggesting that British values are under threat. But many consider that the foremost British value which they hold dear is tolerance – which includes tolerating the creeds of others.

As the Archbishop stated, “Exercise your freedom of speech but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech”. He reminded us that the blasphemy laws were abolished comparatively recently, with the support of the Church. Blasphemy, he suggested, is “morally a bad choice, in the sense of denigrating other people’s faith in a bad way, but it should not be a criminal matter”.

Tolerance should be extended to the couple of dozen demonstrators who made their noisy protest outside the Batley school gate: equally those protestors should reciprocate that tolerance. Perhaps this weekend, above all, they should reflect on the Christian message of forgiveness.

Happy Easter. As the late, great comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.