Jenrick warns City of London Corporation to ensure “heritage and tradition are given robust protection”

12 Feb

The City of London Corporation is very much an anomaly in terms of local authorities. In 1965, changes brought about in Greater London saw the creation of 32 boroughs. This was a dreary reform that saw administrative logic sweep aside tradition and local identity. But just as Asterix and Obelix defended “one small village of indomitable Gauls” against the Romans, there was a small exception which resisted the bureaucratic conformity that was fashionable at the time. Such was the importance of the City of London’s status in our island story that an exemption was allowed for the square mile. It was too well-entrenched. All the legal protections granted by Royal Charter.  The pledge in the Magna Carta that “the city of London shall have/enjoy its ancient liberties.”

Thus to the fury of the killjoy Lefties, all the pomp has survived. The banquets and the Lord Mayor’s Show. The sheriffs, the aldermen, the livery companies, the town clerk, the chamberlain, the beadles. The police with their special helmets. The special voting arrangements for its small electorate.

How extraordinary then, that of all local authorities, this bastion should have captured by the forces of wokeness. Last month the BBC reported:

“Statues of two politicians with links to the transatlantic slave trade are to be removed from central London.

The City of London Corporation announced it would remove statues of William Beckford and Sir John Cass from the Guildhall, in Moorgate.

The decision was made by a taskforce set up by the corporation following nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

A spokeswoman called the move “an important milestone” in moving towards an “inclusive and diverse City”.

The corporation, which looks after the Square Mile in the capital, said it was considering the future of a number of statues and road names with links to the slave trade.”

Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, has written to the Lord Mayor, William Russell, and senior officials calling on them to reconsider. His letter says:

“Our stance on historic statues and sites which have become contested is to retain and explain them; to provide thoughtful, long lasting and powerful reinterpretation that responds to their contested history and tells the full story.”

“These principles similarly apply not just to statues, but other aspects of our heritage, including street names.

“As a unique local authority with unique status compared to others, I hope you will consider this national advice carefully, given you are seen as a leading authority.

“The Corporation of London is itself a product of the City’s rich history. It is in the City’s own interests that heritage and tradition are given robust protection.”

Freedom is not something to be taken for granted. Slavery has dominated in most places across the globe throughout most of history. The unique aspect of the British Empire was abolishing it, in 1833 – with the Royal Navy subsequently stamping out the slave trade by stopping slave ships, not just at British ports but elsewhere. That is a source of pride. But should we really discount the achievements of any monarchs, businessmen, or other public figures, from before that time? Those on “taskforces” set on denigrating our past would seem to think so.

Historic England has produced a checklist for local authorities concerning “contested heritage.” It defines that as “historic objects, structures, buildings or places where the associated stories or meanings have become challenged. The interest in interpretation of our past has never been greater, and when heritage becomes contested, strongly-held views tend to exist on all sides.” It opposes knocking down statues and instead suggests “educational programmes” to provide a balanced account. There would still be plenty of room for dispute about what points should, or should not, be included in any adjoining display cases. But that approach seems reasonable. It is in the spirit of Kwasi Kwarteng’s recent comments that rather then de-colonise the curriculum” the opposite is needed “to learn more about colonialism.”

We might expect an agitprop response to this issue from Lambeth Council – evidently keen to restore its “loony Left” reputation. Yet how extraordinary that the City should need to be protected from a wave of cultural vandalism instigated by the City of London Corporation.

This desperate situation led my colleague Invictus to consider if the Government should respond “by abolishing the thousand-year old Corporation itself and folding its functions into Westminster City Council. After all, the British people might reasonably ask, if you won’t respect our traditions, why should we respect yours?”

The quirky arrangements for local democracy in the City leave it vulnerable. The custom is that party politics are considered infra-dig. So mostly independents are elected. With the assumpion that they will be honoured to be the custodians of its heritage. The difficulty comes when those sneaking in with the “independent” label embark on a mission of self-destruction.

My advice to the City of London Corporation – or any other local authority contemplating an anti-heritage drive – would be instead to devote its efforts to combat modern slavery. The Modern Slavery Act of 2015 included a duty for councils to identify victims. There are estimated to be 10,000 in this country – trapped in domestic servitude or the sex industry. Often the perpetrators are involved in benefit fraud, arranging forced marriages, or providing substandard housing. Would not the most effective application of moral indignation about slavery be to catch the culprits and free the victims – in such districts as Tulse Hill Ward, Lambeth? Rather than fretting about it being named after Sir Henry Tulse, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1684.

How many slaves are trapped in all those awful flats in The Barbican?

Liam Fox: Are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

24 Jan

Liam Fox is a former Secretary of State for International Trade, and is MP for North Somerset.

Over 71,000 more people died in 2020 than would have been expected in a normal year. Apart from a deluded and dangerous minority whose addiction to conspiracy theories leave them in denial about the impact (or even the existence) of Covid-19, most people recognise that these excess deaths are due directly or indirectly to the pandemic.

The UK has been recognised as one of the world leaders in the vaccination programme. Britain has made £548 million available to the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access facility (COVAX), to support equitable and affordable access to new coronavirus vaccines and treatments around the world.

The rollout of the vaccine to the UK population has also been impressive, although there is growing concern about the decision to extend the period between doses of the Pfizer (but not the Oxford AstraZeneca) vaccine.

If we are to continue to lead globally on the issue – and this year’s G7 summit gives us an ideal opportunity to do so – we must be clear about the reality in which we find ourselves, and recognise that the data systems we currently have will be inadequate to deal with the challenges of global pandemic.

We need to understanding that, contrary to a great deal of assertion, this is unlikely to be a “once in a generation” event.

The first major, and deadly, coronavirus outbreak of the 21st century was SARS in 2002.  The second was MERS in 2012. So we are now in the third major global coronavirus outbreak in 20 years.

While the first two had higher death rates than Covid-19, it is the transmissibility of the latest viral variant that has caused such damage. There is, however, no guarantee that we will not get both a more deadly and more transmissible outbreak in the future.  It is likely that Coronavirus is here to stay, and that we will have to deal with potential new variants emerging from time to time around the world.  To have any chance of dealing with this effectively, we need to develop international protocols, and this means having standardised recording of data.

In the UK, there is no single measure to calculate the mortality rate for Covid-19 accurately . We use inferences from total excess death rates, the number of people who have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test, and those who have had Covid-19 mentioned as a contributory cause on their death certificate.

None of these on their own can give us a truly accurate picture about the cost in lives of the virus.  There are three different types of patients who may fall within the excess mortality figures.

The first group is those who have died of Covid, i.e: where this was the main cause of death.

The Coronavirus Act 2020 made changes to death certification which may cloud the waters in this regard. While it is still intended that the doctor who attended the deceased during their last illness should, where possible, complete the death certificate, the Act also allows this to be completed if a patient was not seen by any medical practitioner during their last illness.

If that happens, a doctor would need to state to the best of their knowledge and belief the cause of death.  Covid-19 is now an acceptable ‘direct’ or ‘underlying’ cause of death for the purposes of the certificate but, although it is a notifiable disease, this does not mean that deaths from it must be reported to the coroner.

This may well result in fewer post-mortems being conducted, and a valuable source of data missed.  Some autopsy studies of patients who died of “influenza” during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic showed that, while almost all patients had evidence of bacterial pneumonia, fewer than 50 per cent tested positive for influenza viral antigens or viral RNA. In other words, there was a significant overestimate of the numbers who had actually died of influenza itself.

The second group is those who died with Covid19, that is, those who had been diagnosed with a positive test ,but who may have died of other, unrelated causes.

It seems strange to many that someone who tested positive for the virus but was hit by a bus within a month is counted as a Covid-19 death.

The third group is those who have died as a consequence of Covid-19, including those who did not access medical care because of lockdown, or those who were unable to access the appropriate care because hospitals were overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.

This will be of importance in determining how we run our healthcare services, especially if pandemic is likely to occur more frequently.  It has long been the practice in the NHS to run at very high bed occupancy rates.

We have to ask, if pandemic is going to be potentially a more frequent event, whether this is tilting the balance between efficiency and resilience in the wrong direction.  Given that we have spent billions of pounds trying to stop the capacity of our healthcare system being overwhelmed, would it not be more sensible (and potentially more financially prudent) in future to run the system with many more beds available than we expect to need at any one time?

Given the overall cost to our economy and the impact on the future of our public finances, perhaps we need to re-visit some of the assumptions that have underpinned policy under governments of all political colours. ,

Britain has a real opportunity to lead the global debate and the government can lead the way with the shakeup of Public Health England and the Resilience Unit within the Cabinet Office, both of which should have been better prepared for any pandemic.

I have supported the Government in all the lockdown measures they have taken in relation to Covid-19 but, in future, are we really going to close down the global economy every time a new virus emerges?

If not, what are the international protocols that we will need to develop as a global community and what are the metrics that we will require to make them work? Without proper information, how will we be able to determine the case fatality rate (the deaths from a disease compared to the total number of people diagnosed in a particular period) which will be one of the key measures that we will have to make in the event of a new outbreak?

We will also need enforceable global rules around transparency and notification. As we head for the G7, there can be no better example of “Global Britain” than for Britain to take a lead in pandemic preparedness and work towards global definitions that will enable us to avoid the uncoordinated global response that we have seen during Covid19.

Richard Ritchie: Why I believe that Enoch Powell would have supported this Brexit trade deal

29 Dec

Richard Ritchie is Enoch Powell’s archivist and is a former Conservative Parliamentary Candidate. He was BP’s director of UK Political Affairs.

During the twelve days of Christmas, people like to play games in order to pass the time.  One such game this year, for those of a political inclination, might be to guess how the original Brexiteers of the 1970s – especially John Biffen, Richard Body, Ronald Bell, Neil Martin, Enoch Powell and Derek Walker-Smith – would have reacted to Boris Johnson’s deal, were they alive today.

Would they have supported it, or preferred to leave without one?  Since Powell’s writings and speeches on the subject are more extensive than the others, perhaps he is best placed to speak for them all.  But he has no claim to originality or primacy.

Powell was later to the party than some of those listed above, and for a specific economic reason.  As he readily conceded: “I had entered Mr Macmillan’s Cabinet only six months before the veto fell; but I am prepared to confess that in those days I used to argue the case, and answer objections, on purely commercial grounds.”

Indeed, he admitted in 1965 that he was worried by the thought of Britain being “excluded” from “her fastest growing market”.  This was not a fear shared by, for example, Walker-Smith, who identified the political implications of membership far sooner than Powell.  But then, as now, exclusion from the European market was one of the greatest anxieties of those who felt that Britain’s economic future would be bleak outside.  As Alec Douglas-Home put it in 1967: “where do we find the jobs for our people unless we take advantage of an opportunity like this?”

While Powell was always a fervent free trader (although less so as he grew older and more immersed in Ulster politics) he was slower than the earliest Brexiteers to acknowledge the distinction between a customs union – a Zollverein – and a Free Trade area.  As his understanding of this discrepancy grew, so did his support for entry diminish.

Broadly, his free trading instincts were impeccable, albeit defined in their purest form which seem somewhat remote from the provisions of even the freest trade deal today. He never seemed especially exercised over so-called non-tariff barriers, which are now cited as one of the biggest potential weaknesses of the new arrangements.

Ironically, it is today’s criticisms of the deal which make it more probable that Powell would have welcomed it.  Europe’s move towards a Single Market and the reforms of 1992 ended for Powell any pretence that free trade in his understanding of the term had any similarity with the Customs Union enshrined by the European Community.

As he eventually recognised, “The Community is not about free trade; the Community is about perfect internal competition – which is something essentially different.  It is also about common restriction of external trade. There is no such thing as perfect internal competition and common external trade regulation between free nations.”

For this reason, he would have rejected as false the premise that leaving the Single Market is equivalent to reducing the scope of free trade.  He didn’t think we had it anyway, although how he would have answered specific objections over additional administrative expenses and red-tape provoked by new non-tariff restrictions is unclear from his speeches.

Of one thing, however, we can be confident.  He would not have called for a ‘tit-for-tat’ response against the EU’s invisible barriers to trade.  He distinguished between revenue and protective duties, having no objection to the former but rejecting the need for the latter –  because he believed that “one of the beauties of free trade is that it is a ‘a-political’: you do not have to browbeat or overrule anybody else in order to enjoy its blessings for yourself.  It is a game at which, like Patience, one can play”.

He would have argued that EU barriers against UK businesses would in the end hurt them more than us, provided we didn’t reciprocate. In the end, what some perceive as the greatest dangers of the new arrangements are what would have made them acceptable to Powell and most of his fellow Brexiteers of the past.

But of course, for Powell, these points would have been peripheral to what really matters, encapsulated in his assertion that “a political nation which cannot tax itself or make its own laws is a contradiction in terms.”  What would have made this Agreement acceptable to him is that it has succeeded, for the first time, in recovering powers which some thought had been lost permanently.

That does not mean that Great Britain is free from all international constraints. There was an occasion in 1966 when Powell severely criticised the Labour Government for imposing “illegal” import surcharges “which damaged our EFTA partners and severely shook confidence in Britain’s word and in the seriousness of her desire to enter into closer ties with Europe.”  He did not regard international trade agreements as inconsistent with sovereignty, provided Parliament had the right to scrutinise and reject them – but not to unilaterally renege from them, once signed and ratified.  That was another reason why Powell was so opposed Britain’s entry into the European Union – the longer that one was in and ‘absorbed’, the harder and more impractical it became to consider withdrawal.

But it has happened.  Something which the original Brexiteers warned was virtually impossible before entry, but which they demanded once EU membership was a fait accompli, has been achieved.  We have left the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – a massive recovery of sovereignty.  We are free of the risks of further political integration in the EU which were ever present so long as we remained a member.

While we may still be affected by the Euro’s vulnerability, we are at least spared the legal obligation to recuse it or those it damages.  We have recovered the right to negotiate our own international trade deals.  We may not have yet fully recovered our ability to deregulate and compete fiscally with Europe, but the fact that financial services fall outside the deal may make it possible for the UK to do just that in what is the most important section of our economy.

Talk of ‘free ports’ and the like suggest an economic direction entirely in accordance with free market principles – but which could equally be reversed should the British people choose a government with different priorities and beliefs.  This safeguard was, too, a fundamental belief in the recovery of sovereignty.

If Powell and his fellow Brexiteers were around now, perhaps they would have preferred leaving without a deal – especially if David Cameron had permitted Whitehall to prepare for Brexit in advance of the referendum, thus avoiding the consequent delay and enabling a new relationship to be formed before a pandemic struck.

But the fact is that Powell once accepted the case for entry on the grounds that exclusion from the European customs union was a danger.  He supported EFTA and other such trade agreements, even though they carried obligations and restraints upon domestic policy.  Given what this deal’ has recovered politically, it is doubtful whether he would have allowed its weaknesses to dissuade him from believing that, finally, the ratchet has been turned back, and Britain is once again a sovereign nation.  He would have supported the deal with a clear conscience.

John Redwood: Why we would be better off with No Deal

14 Dec

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

No Deal would be a good outcome for the UK. It would mean that we take back control of our borders, our money, our laws and our fish, as promised by the Leave campaign. The deals on offer from the EU fall well short of improving on No Deal.

It wants to continue overfishing our seas with its huge industrial trawlers. It wants to control our law making in all areas related in any way to business and trade. It wants its court to adjudicate disputes between us – in a clear violation of usual international practice, in which an impartial arbitrator is used, or the two sides need to argue matters through to agreement. Its every word and action signals that it does not wish to accept the fact that we have voted to be an independent country, and intend to be one.

When Theresa May with senior civil servants foolishly sought to recreate many of the features of our EU membership under the cover of a so-called comprehensive partnership, the EU made it impossible for her. If we just wanted a free trade agreement like Canada or Japan, that seemed to be on offer.

Once a new UK government offered to do just, that the EU decided to impede and prevent it, and to pretend the UK still really wanted special access to the Single Market which in turn required subservience to its laws.

There was little good faith in trying to implement the Political Agreement by the EU, given that it said that a free trade agreement would lie at the heart of a new relationship between the EU and the UK. The EU has always behaved with discipline and severity in its negotiating stance, assuming that it can have its cake and eat it. It has repeated its mantra that you cannot have access to the Single Market without accepting many limitations on your freedoms.

This of course is simply not true for the rest of the world, which trades with the EU without having to obey its laws. In every other case, the EU accepts mutual respect for World Trade Organisation rules. The EU as a member of the WTO accepts its disputes resolution. The EU has a history of some violations of WTO rules with penalties – as with subsidies to Airbus.

I was asked to give many speeches during the EU referendum campaign to business audiences. I always said No Deal was the only outcome we could guarantee. It was an outcome which would give a good answer for the UK, achieving all our aims to be independent. On the past economic evidence, I expected a No Deal Brexit to offer us a small boost to GDP if we used the new freedoms well.

I used to go on to say it would be very easy – if there was political will – to add a free trade agreement on top of No deal, which would be beneficial to both sides. In most free trade deals, there are delays and problems with each side wishing to defend a tariff here and a non-tariff barrier there.

In the case of the UK and EU, we start from a position where there are no tariffs and no untowards barriers to goods trade, so it would just be a question of rolling over what we have.  I also sometimes added that some thought the EU would not behave well or want to do that.

In that event, surely it shows how right we are to leave if our EU neighbours, friends and allies behave in such a silly way towards us, to the point of hurting their own access to our own lucrative market. To the EU, the UK has indeed been Treasure Island. It has taken large payments from us in the form of our net contributions to the EU, and has ru a huge surplus on goods and food trade through tariff-free entry.

The Prime Minister has been clear and right in saying we will leave the Single Market and Customs Union. We want our own international trade policy, and will be a more powerful and consistent voice for freer trade than the EU. To do this, we need to have full control of all matters relating to trade and business.

The Single Market has been damaging to the UK overall. In our first decade in the Common Market, as it was then erroneously called, we lost half our motor manufacturing capacity as tariffs were removed. Over the years, we have seen the loss of most of our steel industry and aluminium output, serial damage to textile and ceramic manufacture, the mass closure of foundries and the break up and contraction of our chemical industry.  Our market share in temperate food production has fallen sharply, and we have gone from being a net exporter of fish to a shrunken industry, with consumers reliant on imports for much of our demand.

EU grants and subsidies have bid some business investment away from the UK. EU rules have often been based around the needs and methods of large-scale continental producers at the expense of our firms. The EU has failed to negotiate trade deals at all with two of our largest trading partners, the USA and China, and has not bothered about proper service sector access in other deals, despite the UK’s strong position in many service areas.

Our average growth rate was faster before entry into the Common Market post-war than during the years of Common market membership, which in turn was faster than our average growth rate in the years which followed 1992 and the so-called completion of the Single Market.

The UK establishment has never been willing to analyse the data and understand what was truly happening. It visited upon us the disaster of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, whose predictable impact caused a major recession at the very point there was meant to be a boost from completing the Single Market.

So how can now use our freedoms as we leave with No Deal, assuming there is no last-minute wish to be sensible by the EU and agree a free trade deal?   We should be up and running with tax cuts – at last, we can take VAT off all those green products from insulation to boiler controls the EU insists on.

We can lift tariffs from South African oranges and other tropical fruit and food that we cannot grow for ourselves. We should pursue our offer to the USA of removing EU retaliatory tariffs on its goods if it will drop their tariff on Scotch whisky, which was an unwelcome hit from an EU trade spat.

We should set up freeports and enterprise zones to marshal new investment and make more in the UK. We should reorient farm subsidies to slash the food miles, and grow more of our own salads, fruits,and vegetables. We should land more of our fish at home, and add fish processing to create meals and products that we want to eat or which we can export.

We should put in more electricity capacity, and end our growing dependence on imported EU power. As the Government encourages the planting of many more trees, we should ensure more sustainable forestry to cut the massive timber imports.

These are all good economic reasons to press for the No Deal Brexit. The best reason of all is to be free, living in an independent country. I want to help pass on a country that is self-governing – a beacon for democracy.  Brexit means taking back control of our laws, our borders and our money. That way we will be better governed. If any given government lets us down we can sack it, and get the answer we want from another. That is something we can never do as members of the  EU. They give us the laws and we do not control the government.

Mark Shelford: Independent Police and Crime Commissioners are less accountable than party politicians

14 Dec

Mark Shelford is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset

Bristol-born merchant, philanthropist, and slave-trader, Edward Colston, is not the only public figure to have fallen dramatically in public estimation in the West of England in recent months. As his statue was toppled in June, Colston also brought crashing down with him the reputation of the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, Sue Mountstevens.

It is quite a fall for Mountstevens, who was re-elected to her post as an independent in 2016. She is one of only four remaining non-party PCCs across England and Wales. Interestingly, two of the other three are from the West. The police forces covering Gloucestershire and Dorset also have independents attempting to hold them to account.

The cry of “keep politics out of policing” resonated in parts of the country in 2012 but has been increasingly silent nationwide ever since. In 2016, seven independent PCCs were replaced by Conservatives and after the events of the last few weeks, attitudes here in the West of England are also shifting.

The limitations of Independent candidates are being increasingly exposed. An analysis of ONS statistics published earlier this year highlights areas with the lowest crime rates, across a wide range of offences. These overwhelmingly have Conservatives in charge. Avon and Somerset is listed just once as a good performer, under “miscellaneous crime”.

The idea that frontline policing should not be party political is beyond argument. The police must enforce the law, and keep order, without fear or favour. Ensuring police forces and their Chief Constables uphold this principle is an important part of the job for the 40 PCCs in England and Wales, plus the Mayors of London and Greater Manchester, who fulfil the same role.

But in the West of England, while there is sympathy with the general sentiments expressed by those demonstrating in Bristol last June, attitudes towards how the police acted, and have policed large unlawful public gatherings since, are much less nuanced. Most local people I speak to, from across the political spectrum, remain aghast at local police leaders’ chosen approach.

Many hoped that the relaxed attitude to keeping order taken by the force leadership would be at least questioned by the PCC. Sadly, “independent” Mountstevens not only took no such action, she wholeheartedly endorsed the police leadership approach. Not long after Colston’s fall, Mountstevens issued a rather extraordinary statement, which suggested that if there were enough protesters, if they appeared potentially violent, and if they were protesting against something deemed politically incorrect, the current Police and Crime Commissioner was more than happy for the police not to intervene. And, as an independent, for her, that was the end of the matter. Would a party politician have been able to make such a statement and then move on unchallenged?

Now Mountstevens’ newly-appointed deputy (and conveniently for her, her former chief executive, John Smith) is being lined up to stand for election as an independent to replace her when she steps down next May. In what appears an overly-cosy relationship between the Avon and Somerset operational and political police offices, Smith’s appointment as deputy PCC was endorsed in writing by the current Chief Constable – on the face of it a peculiar blurring of the lines between operational independence and political oversight.

What will “independent” John Smith’s views be on holding the police to account, and how will voters know? What guarantee can there be that his independent views, whatever they are, will remain consistent, were he to be elected? What checks will there be, and from whom, to ensure this independent sticks to his campaign promises? And can residents be sure he will exercise effective oversight of a Chief Constable who recommended him for his current job?

Contrast such an independent candidate with me, running as a Conservative. Voters know what they will get from me on law and order – effectiveness and efficiency, support for frontline officers and putting the victims of crime first. If there were any question of me deviating from that position, there would be plenty of people, not least in my own party, ready to haul me over the coals. There is a democratic party structure which delivers checks and balances and protects voters. Independents have none of this to worry about. Once elected, they can do as much, or as little, as they please.

In the past few months, I have met community groups, parish councils, MPs, and councillors of all parties and none, across this region. As a former councillor myself, I know how important this direct contact is. I have talked to hundreds of party members, alongside members of the general public and serving police officers. A key role of the PCC is to be the voice of the public. My political links and experience would mean I’d have no choice but to be accountable to the public. I couldn’t get away with avoiding public meetings or not responding to concerns raised by the public. There is no way I, as a party politician, could retreat to a cosy cabal of advisers and cronies, even if I wanted to.

An independent PCC like Mountstevens or her prospective replacement, John Smith, is indeed independent of the day-to-day scrutiny which any party politician has to deal with, and especially Conservative politicians when it comes to law and order. The public know we have to deliver. It’s a leap into the dark with independents.

Across the West of England, the notion that those overseeing the local police should be ‘independent’ is an idea whose time has gone. Roll on the PCC elections next May. From what local residents are telling me, they can’t come soon enough.

Richard Holden: This first Johnson year demanded tough short-term decisions. The coming second will demand tough long-term ones.

7 Dec

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Sarnie Salon, Consett

A week may be a long time in politics, but a year is an eternity. Another truth is that it is very rare that situations arise in politics that have never been encountered before.

But the best-laid plans of twelve months that were expected to be dominated by Britain getting out of the European Union, and starting to level up the country – so delivering on two of the major promises of the election – have been more than overshadowed by the borderless forces of nature.

In North West Durham, with the fells iced with snow, I was thinking about other times when occurrences on the other side of the globe had dealt out a thrashing to well-laid plans.

In 1815, a volcano in Indonesia exploded. Mount Tambora was reduced by five thousands feet in height, as the mountain was blown into the incalculable pieces and up into the earth’s atmosphere in the greatest explosion in a thousand years.

1816 became known as the ‘year without a summer.’ Crops failed, the largest famine in the nineteenth century ripped through the world, and hundreds of thousands died as conspiracy theories abounded.

While today we know more about why and how external shocks happen – facts that won’t stop some of those conspiracy theorists – this doesn’t alter the impact of such events . No-one can doubt that the global Coronavirus pandemic has hit every aspect of our lives, and that its aftershocks will be felt for many years to come.

The disaster that we witnessed in Southern Europe of football stadiums being used as mortuaries and hospitals being overwhelmed has been averted here. The measures that have been taken to avoid that scenario have come at a huge financial cost, as taxpayers’ money has been used to support employees and employers, since businesses were forced to close in the interest of public health to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. The other costs, in terms of impacts on education, physical and mental health are not yet fully quantifiable, but will be significant, too.

In the early nineteenth century there was no understanding of what had happened among either the people or the Government. The price of food went, no-one knew why – and there was suspected conspiracy, which led to rioting in the cities. In the countryside, people didn’t know why the sun wasn’t shining. That, by contrast, we know the causes of the problem we’re facing is very helpful – and the recent announcement of vaccines also gives us an end point.

For the overwhelming majority of my constituents, because they have a panoply of facts on hand, the pandemic isn’t political. What they want to see if politicians of allsides working to get out of it.

For our political opponents, their attempts at politicising it are probably the reason that, despite the economic impact, poll ratings are holding up for the Government. Rather than a government-in-waiting, Labour are seen as an opposition that leaves people wanting. In the last year nothing could be clearer than the seeming inability of the new Labour leader to deal decisively with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s anti-semitism problems. It is quite clear that the opposition is hopelessly divided.

For Labour, their situation a year in is compounded by what looks like the Keir v. Jeremy show. I don’t believe that if I walked down the main drag in Crook, Consett or anywhere else in my constituency I could find a single person who could name a member of the Shadow Cabinet and their job title.

For a new MP, the overwhelming international issue of Coronavirus has provided some practical difficulties on the ground, but it has really bound me to the community. Having championed our local pubs and hospitality sector, there is nothing worse than seeing it closed. Seeing the excellent work of our community hospitals and their renewed purpose during Coronavirus has helped get my campaign for a new community hospital to replace it over the line as one of the new 40 that our Prime Minister promised at the election.

It has also shown what strong and wonderful people there are out there in our towns and villages, putting themselves our for others. Remembrance in County Durham matters and, recently, I nominated two people locally for the Prime Minister’s ‘Points of Light’ awards who had raised funds for it: Vera, who has been supporting the Royal British Legion for decades and has earned the sobriquet “Mrs Poppy” for raising over £1 million for the appeal, and Venita, on behalf of a team of over 50 local volunteers, who created thousands of poppies as a memorial to over 200 men of Weardale killed in the World Wars. Nothing drives me on in campaigning for North West Durham more than meeting people who are giving their all for our community every day.

While this year may have been overshadowed by the pandemic, we can now very much see the light at the end of the tunnel. The ruin it has wrought will last, though. Our communities will remember the response that we now make.

So the call to ‘Build Back Better’ will need to prove more than a catchphrase for the electors of North West Durham in 2024. The new community hospital, awaited for decades, is very welcome, as is the funding for a feasibility study into a new public transport link from Consett to the Tyne. But underpinning all of that will be good jobs, a sound economy and public finances that can afford to pay for the levelling up agenda. That economic development needs to be self-sustaining locally as far as possible to be sustainable.

The first year has been tough. The second year will involve real decisions about the long-term and will cast in steel the signs for the future. Crucially, the towns of the North East, left behind for generations by Labour, will need to see their Conservative MPs forging a path to a future that enables them with good jobs, better services, a growing economy and sound public finances to support it. The groundwork is down to the individual MPs, but the direction of the centre will be critical.

Ben Monro-Davies: “I think when women cry, often they are angry.” On this day, 30 years ago, Margaret Thatcher resigned

22 Nov

Ben Monro-Davies is an Executive Producer at Sky News and has previously work at the BBC and Channel 4 News. He is the host of the podcast Big Ben History, which discusses the past at Westminster.

All remember it vividly. They arrived not entirely sure what was about to happen, awaiting her in the ante room. Her Principal Private Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, briefly panicked: he’d forgotten to tell ministers the right time, such was the silence as he and the soon to resign Prime Minister approached. But as they turned the corner – he and she saw them all there – in his words, “pressed back, looking at their shoes.”

The meeting was earlier than usual – bought forward not because of the end of an eleven year premiership – but for the memorial service for Libby Douglas Home, the wife of Alec. Many went straight to St Paul’s Cathedral afterwards – William Waldegrave remembers the surreal juxtaposition of them singing All Things Bright and Beautiful with the choir just an hour afterwards.

Some had anticipated what was about to happen. The Cabinet secretary, Robin Butler, realised the night before that it was all over. He was keen to “stage manage” proceedings. “I didn’t want there to be a hiatus with nobody knowing what to do.” On November 21st, he drafted a tribute on behalf of the Cabinet – and asked James Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, to read it. He chose Mackay as someone who was clearly not going to succeed her.

Lord Mackay – today still active in the Lords in his nineties – reflects that he, the son of railway signal man, had “strangely enough become number two in the cabinet, and I was sitting next to the Prime Minister.”

He remembers Thatcher reading her statement and breaking down. Cecil Parkinson spoke up, saying: “the Lord Chancellor will read it for you.” Two members of her staff, Barry Potter and Dominic Morris recall Parkinson adding “you don’t have to do this”. Mackay says he responded firmly: “no : the Lord Chancellor will not read it for you, The Prime Minister will read it herself.” Others recall her stumbling to the end – and then saying “I had better do that again”, and reliving the grief once more.

When I first became interested in this most dramatic of meetings, I’d assumed that was that. With a twenty-first century sensibility towards job termination, it already required imagination to grasp a scenario in which you’d have to read out your resignation to the men who’d called time on your career the day before.

But the meeting was not over. It was still a Cabinet gathering with an agenda. So with some ministers such as the Home Secretary, David Waddington, in tears, the meeting moved on – albeit with some constitutional as well as emotional awkwardness.

Her Party Chairman, Kenneth Baker, remembers a break for coffee, and a revived Iron Lady then telling the cabinet “on no account must Heseltine be elected” – an instruction he calls “inappropriate”. That was exactly what some of those in the meeting did want. Butler felt obliged to “soften” the Cabinet minutes to record a general exhortation to carry on the work of her government.

Tom King, then Defence Secretary, was moved by the scene. He’d found her very supportive during his time in Northern Ireland office, and remembers her kindly taking him aside after his mother died. By contrast, he doubts his previous boss, Ted Heath, ever knew his name. He also considered himself as the possible next Prime Minister. “The truth was at that moment four or five of us could have come through as her successor. That’s the reality. “

But he was also next on the Cabinet agenda – outlining the biggest military deployment since World War II to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. This was effectively a war cabinet meeting, and the British machinery of government was navigating the defenestration of its leader and a massive military engagement at the same time.

The less historic was attended to as well. No-one understandably remembers, but in her memoirs Thatcher describes an item on “an unsuccessful Fisheries Council ruined by incompetent Italian chairmanship”. It’s confirmed in the minutes. The State was remorselessly executing the tasks in hand,

There were only two women in the room: Thatcher, and Caroline Slocock, then a private secretary in Downing St. She was not politically sympathetic to Thatcherism, and to her disappointment had been denied the position on a permanent basis. She later discovered that Thatcher had been behind this.

Nevertheless, she remembers the meeting as “pure torture. I was only the other woman in the room. To my shock I started to cry. I hadn’t even brought in a handkerchief. It was the extraordinary loss of power. “

But as a woman, there was another perspective. “It was also the anger. I think when women cry, often they are angry. I think she was probably very angry with these men. The scene has haunted me ever since.” By the end of that day, she recalls there being no tissue paper in the women’s bathroom.

Slocock was right. Thatcher was angry and made little secret of it afterwards. Peter Lilley thinks he was the only cabinet minister present at the launch of her memoirs which eviscerated her former colleagues as “men in lifeboats”.

As to how it had come to this, there are the common observations that longevity breeds detachment. Having so often been proved right at the ballot box, it became harder for her to accept she might be wrong, most notably on the poll tax. Lilley feared she might ask him to rescue it, and warned his wife he would have to return to the backbenches because he believed the policy wrongheaded.

But more bespoke episodes are identified. All bring up a cabinet meeting just a few days before, where she humiliated Geoffrey Howe needlessly over an issue of the parliamentary timetable. Malcom Rifkind says “he was the Deputy Prime Minister and she tore him into as if he were an errant schoolboy. That was a disgrace.”

Howe resigned shortly afterwards, triggering the events that led to a leadership challenge from Michael Heseltine. Charles Moore in his authorised biography of Thatcher concludes that Howe was going to resign anyway. But in two Cabinet meetings in November 1990 ministers spent much of it, in Kenneth Baker’s words, “staring at the blotters on their desks.”

And one name forgotten name comes up again and again. Peter Morrison was her Parliamentary Private Secretary who was tasked with her leadership campaign. Michael Howard says: “He was frankly hopeless. I remember ringing Peter up, and asking is there anything I can do to help? ‘No, no, no he said, it’s all under control old boy, there’s nothing you can do.’ It was a disaster.” Morrison was an alcoholic who died five years later, and the current Independent Child Sex Abuse inquiry has heard claims that he was also a sex offender.

Thatcher was forced into a fatal second ballot by a handful of votes – hearing the news In Paris at a conference with world leaders to mark the end of the Cold War. She’d played a crucial role in defeating the Soviet Union, but neglected to appoint the right general to deal with her own troops. Barry Potter blames a weakness for “posh men.” Andrew Turnbull adds she liked them also to be “tall.” Morrison fitted both categories.

And for all the drama of the final cabinet meeting , it’s worth noting the absence of three central actors. Michael Heseltine was of course challenging from the backbenches. Geoffrey Howe was there with him, for the first time since 1979. And the Chancellor of Exchequer was also missing. John Major was at home recuperating from having his wisdom teeth removed. The next cabinet meeting he attended was as Prime Minister.

Maurisa Coleman: We should not allow the Left to claim ownership of Black History Month

20 Oct

Maurisa S. Coleman is a British–Trinidadian entrepreneur, currently working as a Parliamentary researcher. She is also an ambassador for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Today, a debate will take place on Black History Month in the Commons.  Black History Month is dedicated to recognising the contributions by people of African and Caribbean origins to this country. This Parliamentary debate is essential for the recognition of these contributions, and as a reminder that Black History is not limited to slavery.

Despite Labour’s attempts to own the debate, it’s great to see a Conservative MP, Theresa Villiers, co-sponsoring it with MPs from other parties. Theresa called for the inclusion of Black History in the British History curriculum last month.

As an ambassador for the Notting Hill Carnival, this is a topic for which I am a passionate advocate.  I have no doubt the issue of slavery will be raised today. I hope that it can be discussed openly and honestly, without hate and malice.

It is a most difficult thing to do – discuss the sins of our fathers without blaming their descendants. I fear that time and time again, slavery is used, not to cast light and wisdom on the darker experiences of humanity, but to portray black people as perennial victims, and to foster a culture of resentment.

This is incredibly unproductive. With reference to recent events, there is no need to pull down the great British men and women who made this country. None of us are without sin. The focus should be on the achievements that paved the way for our nation as it is today.

I look forward to the day that emancipation from slavery isn’t masqueraded as the highest achievement of Blacks and especially those who originate from the Caribbean. The contribution of both black people and other immigrants into this country is so much broader than that, encompassing soldiering, arts, music and politics.

I hope this debate achieves the following.

First, please can Conservative MPs stop allowing the Left to hijack a debate that is important to all of us? Black history is not an appeasement to ethnic communities, but a critical component of modern British history and experience.

Second, let’s make the argument that lots of histories can live harmoniously on the pages of our books, whether through scholarship about ‘traditional’ history as described through political events, or other histories: military history, Holocaust history, social histories or the history of new Britons who have come here from different parts of the world.

There is no reason why black history cannot be as intrinsically patriotic, rigorous and questioning as other historical disciplines.

Third, let’s embrace ownership of the Windrush saga. Windrush is the starting point for a free group of black people invited to this country. I have seen the Conservative Party take ownership of the serious mistakes against this generation and make movements to rectify past errors. Let’s keep highlighting what we are doing to make it right.

Chris McGovern: Black History Month must be rescued from patronising tokenism

13 Oct

Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. He is a retired head teacher and a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street.

Do we need to call time on Black History Month? Should this October’s be the last? This is not a popular question to pose. We are, after all, in the midst of its celebration. Schools are submerged by it, the media is awash with it, and our political leaders are publicly embracing it.

Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, is particularly enthusiastic:

“Iconic figures like Mary Seacole, whose heroic service as a nurse during the Crimean war inspires us today in the fight against COVID-19.”

Seacole has been voted the Greatest Black Briton. Sanctifying her must seem like a sure-fire political winner for politicians. Undoubtedly she displayed some heroic qualities. In 2016, indeed, these were commemorated by an impressive statue of her that was erected in the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Her un-woke views, though, hardly chime with the spirit of our age. Seacole (1805-1881) was, after all, prepared to put her life on the line in defence of a British Empire that is now much maligned. In her autobiography she classified Turks as ‘degenerate Arabs’ and opined that, ‘the fleas are the only industrious creatures in all Turkey.’ She, also, dismissed ‘the cunning-eyed Greeks and ‘the lazy Maltese‘.

Her guide in Constantinople she addressed as ‘Jew Johnny’. Add to this, her deployment of the n-word and her reference to the ‘dirty skin’ of foreigners and we can see that her views on race were not much different from Churchill’s and of most other people at that time.

Too much Black History is tokenism, and this will not suffice. Black History should be taught, where relevant, across twelve months, not one. Norwegian-born anti-racist and Guardian columnist, Afua Hirsch argues my case with persuasive logic:

“Why should the focus on black figures of historical significance be confined to one month of the year? If they are important, they should be entered into the mainstream of the rest of the curriculum and, outside school, into cultural events. If they aren’t significant, then there is no greater justification for focusing on them in October than there is at any other time of the year.”

She is right. The danger is that we end up distorting history by filtering it through a lens of political correctness.  Abundant filters have been applied to the past, of course – Tudor, Whig, Tory, Marxist, Liberal and so on. PC history provides a new distorting mirror. Black History should be integrated into history teaching across the year, where it is relevant. It does not merit special or privileged status. Nor should its subject matter be filtered.

An important lesson from the past that children need to learn is that people have similar characteristics and behaviour patterns, regardless of their racial background.

Slavery, for example, was widespread in Africa and in central America, including the Caribbean area, before the Europeans turned up.  Nor was human sacrifice unusual in those parts of the world. The Aztecs, for example, practised it on a large scale.

In the historical kingdom of Benin, too, part of modern-day Nigeria, human sacrifice was a component of the state religion until stamped out by the British in the late 19th century, just as the Sati or suttee – widow burnings – was suppressed by the British in India.

The presence of Africans in the Roman army that was stationed in Britain is becoming a must-teach topic of Black History, and so it should be. Children are unlikely to be taught, however, that the African legionaries were here in Britain as part of an army of occupation and enslavement. In addition, the African Emperor Septimius Severus, decreed genocide against those living north of Hadrian’s Wall but died in York (Eboracum) before his command could be implemented. This is a nasty but necessary truth of Black History that needs to be taught.

Anther necessary truth is that the African-Caribbean dimension has little part to play on these islands during the thousand or so years of what historians describe as the Middle Ages. It becomes increasingly significant for British history in modern times with the growth of empire and so, of course, needs to be taught. The history of other racial groups and other parts of the world, though, has an equal claim on curriculum time.

If children are allowed to scratch the surface of Black History, they will find that what racial groups have in common, outweighs their differences.

In October 2018, the Royal Historical Society published a report entitled: ‘Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History’. It was supportive of calls for greater diversity in the curriculum. It noted, however, that what amounts to a non-stop force-feeding of slavery and deprivation was putting black children off history. The “seemingly relentless focus” on the exploitation and abolition of slavery can be “intellectually limiting and, at times, alienating” for black pupils, it concluded.

Black History month needs to concern itself with more than the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its abolition. Here are a few other Black History topics that children need to learn about; some already do:

  1. The defeat of Hitler’s German/Aryan master-race theory by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
  2. The reasons why, in addition to the fact that,  so many Blacks volunteered to fight in two World Wars for the British Empire.
  3. Nelson Mandela’s donning of the South African Springbok rugby shirt – the symbol of white supremacy and apartheid – at the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in Johannesburg.
  4. Why almost every former territory of the British Empire has chosen to be part of the Commonwealth of Nations.
  5. The Rwanda genocide.
  6. The image of Patrick Hutchinson, a black man, carrying a white man to safety during the first Black Lives Matter protest in London in June 2020.

My choice of topics is there to be argued over. That is, after all, what history should be about.

Black History Month, sadly, can too easily descends into patronising tokenism built solely on the concept of an exclusive victimhood. This is dishonest. The ghosts of a million or so UK citizens who died of starvation across a few years in 1840s, for example, might feel they are missing out.

The lesson of history is that there is no colour-bar on human wickedness and suffering, just as there is no colour-bar on human achievement. Black History and non-Black history should be taught across every month of the year – warts and all, good and bad, wicked and wonderful!  Most certainly it should not be regarded as yet another opportunity for virtue signalling by manipulative politicians of whatever political persuasion.

We need a Plan B for universities as well as schools – and much the same one

28 Sep

Government sources insist that students will be allowed to go home for Christmas – and not be locked up en masse, as they have been at some universities, unable to leave halls of residence.

Ruth Davidson has swooped on the shutdown in Scotland, writing that students have been confined to their rooms, barred from visiting shops to buy food – let alone pubs or restaurants – banned from travelling home, policed by extra security staff and threatened with letters instructing compliance under threat of suspension.

These, remember, aren’t people who necessarily have Covid-19, or who have been directly in contact with others who do.  It isn’t obvious that the situation is much different in parts of England, where some three thousand students are apparently also locked down.

Nor is it clear how many students will be able to be at home with their family when Christmas comes.  For either the Government’s latest restrictions will be in place, if Boris Johnson maintains his grip on policy, or else even stricter ones will have superceded them.  We hope that mass testing will be up and running by then, but aren’t counting our chickens, or Yuletide turkeys either, come to that.

In which case, the number of students allowed home will depend on the number who have symptoms of the virus, since those who have it must self-isolate for 14 days by law, as must those contacted by test-and-trace services.  Government guidance also says that “all other household members need to stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days” if another has the virus.  What happens when the location is not a home but student accommodation?

This provokes the further question of whether students should have returned to university.  If you want to attack Ministers, you will claim that the present tangle was forseeable.  If you want to defend it, you will counter that normality must resume – as nearly as possible, anyway.

There are a number of short-term means of plastering over the cracks, none of which will provide a smooth and seamless finish.  Some universities are offering vouchers for food, or rebates, or providing food directly.  Robert Halfon wants the students affected to recieve discounts.

The colleges will argue that they shouldn’t pay these, since they aren’t responsible for the lockdown rules.  The Chancellor might well say in response that this may be so, but the Commons can’t simply load more debt on the taxpayer indefinitely – or there won’t be any public money for universities in the first place.

There are issues for the long-term as well as for the short.  The central aim of the Government’s latest Covid-19 measures is to build a firewall between work and home, with the former operating as near normally as possible but the latter less, as part of the balance to protect livelihoods as well as lives.

Schools are placed in the former category, partly because parents will be unable to work normally if they aren’t, and partly because of the value we place on education.  University education also has value, both to the economy and in its own right.

But it has never been universally available to all regardless of qualification, as is obviously the case for primary and secondary schooling.  And as our columnist Neil O’Brien notes, the number of students in higher education is out of balance: for around ten per cent of women, and a quarter of men, their degree isn’t worth it.

He wrote recently that “highly subsidised universities would propose to government how they will reduce their cost to the taxpayer. That could mean reducing numbers on some courses, or making them cheaper with shorter degrees, or and doing more online. Or a mix”.  This is where student accomodation comes in.  Why do a higher proportion of British students leave home for higher education, compared to some other comparable countries?

The answer is bound up with the monopoly that Oxford and Cambridge held on university education in England from the medieval period until 1827, when University College, London, opened.  In consequence, an assumption was written into our educational culture that if students were to go university, they should go to it rather than it come to them.

This was less so on the continent, where local universities are more common – though our national picture has changed as new universities have suddenly sprung up fully-formed, or as other institutions have gradually become universities.

So for example, David Willetts, in his A University Education, traces the story of how, in Bradford, the Mechanics Institute morphed its way through Bradford Technical School to Bradford Technical College to the Bradford College of Art & Technology to Bradford College…to Bradford University.

However, there is no uniform story of locally-rooted colleges becoming Oxbridge-type universities, complete with ivy-laden walls or red brick or both.  The former colleges of advanced techology, such as Braford itself, have spells in industry as part of their courses.  Others have links to regional or local industries.

All of which reinforces the question of whether the country needs so many other universities and students following the Oxbridge model in the first place.

The short-term pressure on living space, accomodation and lecture rooms will intensify next year, as the knock-on effects of this year’s A-level fiasco work their way through the system, because of the students who have now qualified to enter a university, but have been forced to postpone entry until next year.

Meanwhile, the long-term trend to doing more online is being speeded up by the Coronavirus, as the move from learning together from lectures in big rooms to doing to separately from screens in smaller ones gathers pace.  Furthermore, universities aren’t always in full control of the living quarters that they offer students.

Halfon is certainly right in believing that the Government needs a Plan B for universities – mirroring the one that both he, this site and others have called for in schools, as the Covid-19 case numbers rise.

Obviously, universities have an independence from government that schools don’t.  But it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to design a fee and finance system that rewards universities for more online teaching.

Such a solution would be fiercely debated.  Moving schooling online temporarily is one thing; shifting “the university experience” online too would be another (though to some extent this is happening already).

We already complain that young people are stuck at home for too long.  Do we want them there during their university years, too?

What about the horizan-widening that moving to a new place brings, together with mixing with others from outside one’s home town, city or village?

Our bleak answer is that one can no more turn back the online tide than one could turn back a real one, and that the universities, like so much and many elsewhere, have no alternative but to sink or swim in it.