Johnson the Diplomat

when Boris johnson was campaigning to become PM, his team were very clear - tell them you saved London, but DON’T MENTION THE FOREIGN OFFICE. They knew that his time as Foreign Secretary was a total disaster, and that his best chance of winning was to hope that nobody remembered that. But now he’s in charge, we get an immediate reminder. In the first few days of his premiership, he made token trips to Scotland, Ireland, Wales. Wasn’t always welcome, didn’t make any progress, but at least he flew the flag. but in Europe, nothing. Despite claiming that he would attempt to make a new deal, he’s had no contact with senior EU figures, and is clearly terrified of being filmed talking to them, and then coming back with nothing. That’s Theresa May territory, and he’s steering clear.

But all the Brexit theory says that once we’re out, we’ll make exciting new deals with our partners. Oh no we won’t, not if we treat them like dirt. Whatever he says, Johnson is the ultimate entitled Englishman, convinced of his own superiority, and totally unable to see how he looks to other people. Which would be fine, if he were an isolated lunatic. as our Prime Minister, he’s going to make us pay, for a long time.

The Great Hack

Just as we’re consigning Cambridge Analytica to history, here comes another treat from Netflix - The Great Hack. This does a wonderful education job in explaining exactly how digital advertising was targetted during the Brexit campaign, aimed at a small number of undecided voters with impressively precise effect. But it also sets the context of CA’s work - the links with military spending, the gun for hire mentality which means that they were happy to go all over the globe, delivering election results for various dictators, often through dirty tricks, bribery and persuading people that it wasn’t worth their while to vote. They have a CA guy who speaks rather sadly about how unlucky it was that CA happened to be the firm that got caught, but when you look in detail at what they were doing (and at what they tried to hide) it’s very clear that this is a powerful effective way of twisting democracy, and we don’t have anything like the machinery we need to control it. So, just when you thought you had quite enough already, there’s another reason to be gloomy…

A ruthless coup

When we saw the announcement of Boris Johnson’s success in the leadership election, he and Hunt turned to congratulate each other, and Johnson made a joke about Hunt’s good ideas, which he’d now proceed to pinch. Good mates, we thought, and although Hunt has reservations about Johnson he’ll do what many cabinet colleagues have done, and stifle his misgivings in return for a place in the cabinet.

Oh no he won’t. Because Johnson won’t be offering him a place in the cabinet that he’ll want to accept. There’s no notion of keeping the party together, healing woulds, representing different factions. It’s the hard Brexit dream team, with nobody there who might get in the way. Maybe the most extreme move is having Dominic Cummings as a senior adviser. To most people he’s the guru on the Brexit election, the maverick mastermind who gloried in the poisonous anarchy of that campaign, and by force of personality imposed a ferocious discipline on his part of the Leave campaign. His tactics, his slogan, his focus on targetted digital advertising were all crucial, and without him they wouldn’t have won.

But my memories of Cummings go further back, to his time in education. He was similarly rude and disruptive then, making a lot of enemies and steering through the Gove reforms, but that’s not an achievement to be proud of. The sustained insults to people working in education, and the abstract nature of the changes envisaged, ensure that there’s no positive legacy - just a record of damage and possibilities missed. Cummings might win Johnson the election for which he’s heading, but he won’t do anything for the lasting benefit of the country.

Coping with Adolescents

I’ve written a sonnet about Trump entitled Teen, and that’s not just me being abusive. that’s what he reminds me of, insecure teenagers I taught, covering up with bluster and over-confience. A couple of recent examples. He wants the Us to withdraw from Afghanistan, and he wants Pakistan to take up some of the slack to allow them to do that. Not nonsensical in itself, but he feels the need to justify it by claiming that he could destroy Afghanistan in a week, but doesn’t want to, because it will kill 10 million people. My soldiers are better than your soldiers, and if I wanted I could blow up the world. No sense that this military might is not actually there for his pleasure, but for the service of the country as a whole.

And now it’s India. He’s claiming that India asked him to solve the Kashmir dispute. the only snag is, India say they did no such thing. Of course they didn’t. No-one in their right minds would let Trump anywhere hear a complex negotiation. and deep down he probably knows that, and hates it, so he’s going to claim they asked him anyway, even though they didn’t. If we were just talking about him on his own it would be sad, but the consequences for the rest of the world could be disastrous.

Knock Down the House

It may well be that Netflix has a lot to answer for, so far as its impact on film-making is concerned, but short-term it delivers some wonderful stuff. There’s a moving documentary at the moment called Knock Down the House, about young Democratic candidates seeking to resist the Trump avalanche by standing as candidates for Congress. They’re not rich or respectable, and many of them don’t have a long political track record - but that’s the point. They’re at the sharp end, thinking “if I don’t do this, who will?” and watching them support and energise each other is really powerful. If you’ve ever been involved in a grass roots campaign of self-defence, you’ll recognise so much of this. The film moves between four candidates, all of them standing against the odds, but the triumph is the election of Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, now famous as one of the squad. That she got to Congress is totally stunning. Now there’s the battle/tension/debate, between her and young, radical oppionenets of Trump, and the Nancy Pelosi generation, hardened veterans who see the dangers of going too far left, the way that feeds the Trump machine. There aren’t simple answers, but it’s still heartening to see that energy and passion actually record a win for once.

A European perspective on Brexit

Maybe I shouldn’t have watched. I’ve thought and read about this, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new, but Thursday’s documentary review of the Brexit negotiations was still hugely depressing. All it did was spell out in remorseless detail, again and again, how incompetent we had been at every stage. European partners, who had thought of us as intelligent and responsible operators, looked on in disbelief, as it slowly dawned on them - “No, they haven’t got a clue. They don’t what they want. They don’t know where they’re going.” Every one who spoke from Europe, and especially from Ireland, was thoughtful, perceptive and illuminating, while the Brits were just floundering around,striking poses and looking at themselves in the mirror.

There was one brief, striking moment of illumination. Theresa May, visiting Northern Ireland, glot a close-up look at what “no deal” would mean to particular people and businesses there - and it cured her of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” nonsense, which she no longer spouted after that particular epiphany. But such wisdom was occasional and late, and we are surely screwed.

World Cup Final

i’m not that bothered about cricket. My wife and son are both a lot keener than I am, but he’d been at Edgbaston to see England thrash Australia in the semi-final, so I was having a leisurely day and thought I might as well check in to see if cricket was finally “coming home”, as the wistful patriots love to sing. Oh boy,.what a game. I suppose I started with a “Can we please do it? Just for once?” kind of feeling, but ended up totally gutted for New Zealand. all the luck there was went against them. Yes, both teams ended up with the same total in normal play, but 12 of England’s was from two freak sixes - a catch where the fielder trod on the boundary board a nanosecond before he passed it to someone else, and then then ludicrous 2 plus 4 contrived by the ball hitting Stoke’s bat as he charged into the crease, diverting it for an extra four runs. Before that the New Zealanders had been incredibly impressive, defending what looked like a puny total with tigerish teamwork. Joe Root, an impressive and attractive run-maker throughout the competition, was reduced to a wildly belligerent schoolboy, determined to get himself out through sheer frustration. Watching Kane Williamson do the magic captain thing, organising and encouraging his team, was really impressive - as was the dignity with which he coped with an outrageous conclusion to the match,. Now that;’s sportsmanship.

Labour and Anti-semitism

I really didn’t want to watch this. I hated the whole hassle about adopting or not adopting various definitions of anti-semitism, and i’m sure that the Israeli lobby exerts a powerful force on such debates, but I didn’t know enough what had been going on in the Labour Party, so I thought I’d educate myself.

Oh boy. To start with what seems definite. The change in Labour Party membership has led to a change in tone, an increased willingness to resort to “Zionist” as a term of abuse. The programme gathered together a series of young Jewish members, and - even more crucially - a succession of young campaigners who were seriously committed to the grinding business of exploring allegations of anti-semitism, and of ensuring that they were thoroughly investigated. As a group, I thought they were admirable and convincing, and I believed their cumulative account of a party leadership that had regularly intervened to stop them doing their job. And who, in the process, imposed pressures on them which led to resignation and mental illness.

But the most depressing aspect of this is the leadership’s response. No, they weren’t coming on the programme.( One innocent lower flunky did appear, but only to insist in the vaguest possible terms about how totally he and Jeremy were opposed to anything nasty). The allegations came from disappointed Blairites, disaffected members who had never fully believed in Jeremy - and Jeremy, as we all know, has always been a beacon of hope and light. He may not be personally anti-semitic, but he is a crap manager of people, and if he’s allowed his immediate entourage to infect party procedures in the way this programme describes, then he deserves everything he gets. Not great news for the rest of us, or for any hopes of an alternative government, but here you go. They never said it would be easy.

Prime Minister material?

Watching the great debate between potential prime ministers, it seemed at the time a crucial moment. Hunt says that he backs Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the US, despite Trump’s insulting personal attacks. which way will Johnson jump? He won’t jump. He’ll bluster, as usual, and later he’ll say he was misrepresented, misunderstood, like he al;ways does, but he won’t bite the bullet and say Trump has got this wrong, and we stand by our diplomats.

So when, next day, Kim Darroch resigns - partly because of Johnson’s failure to back him - there’s a kind of satisfaction in watching Johnson squirm, at seeing him have to confront the consequences of his self-obsessed entitlement. In any normal world, the notion that he might be the best person to be our Prime Minister is patently ridiculous, but this is the asylum and the lunatics are in charge.

Exit Lionesses

So we’ve come to the end of the line. The plucky Lionesses have come to the World Cup,reached the smi-final, but are now going home. and that’s OK. They weren’t the best team, and they have done well, and it has been a pleasure to sit through a number of games of women’s football - which is something I’ve never done before.

Early on, I wasn’t convinced. We seemed to give the ball away so much, not be able to sustain concentration or teamwork, that i couldn’t see us beating any team of any quality. Watching Norway beat Australia, for instance, I though “either of these are a lot better than us.” But then, when it comes to Englan v. Norway, they manage to turn it on. They chase around the field, harass the Norwegians out of possession, and produce some fast, flowing movements which create great goals.

The USA, however, were a step too far. Too tough, too canny, too consistent. when the commentator was cooing about Steph Houghton’s courage in stepping up to take the crucial penalty, you knew we weren’t quite up to it. sod her courage, where’s her common sense? It was a pathetic penalty, and she should have known she wasn’t in the state to take it. If that had been Megan Rapinoe, it wouldn’t have bobbled along the ground. so we’re not the best in the world, but it was fun while it lasted. r

Judi and Me

There’s something about actors of your own age, especially when you both start young and get to be over 70. As a student in 1966 i never dreamed that the smart, tough young woman who leapt off the screen in Talking to a Stranger would end up as an eminent dame, but there you go. It’s been a pleasure to watch most of what she does, and i wish her well in a vague sort of way - which made it all the more poignant to read about her vanishing sight. she’s had to give up driving, because she’s a threat to other people, though the loss of independence is heartbreaking - as it was for my dad, and will be for me, when the time comes. she has to get other people to read her lines to her when she learns them, and that can’t be easy. And as she gets older she has to re-evaluate the past, as we all do. To recognise that Weinstein and spacey seem to have committed serious crimes - but still wanting to hold on to the quality of work that they made possible. It’s true what they say, Judi, life’s a bitch, and then you die. but it’s good to do it in such company.

The Truth about Thatcher

No, I really didn’t fancy a five-hour series about Margaret Thatcher, lived through all that, thank you, andlife’ depressing enough. But the good thing about the current catch-up regime is that it allows you to have second thoughts, to be persuaded by rave reviews to overcome initial prejudices, and give something a try which you didn’t originally fancy.

And yes, it was worth it. as with many of these current documentary series, they’ve amassed a ton of first-hand testimony from key participants, and have ditched the omnisicent anchor offering their distinctive take on what happened and why. The downside of that is that there’s rather too much Bernard Ingham, lamenting how her courtiers didn’t have the guts to stand by her - even when she was visibly wandering over the edge.

And that’s the big revelation - the speed at which she lost her crude but powerful political instincts, and slid into mania. Insisting that Tebbitt should become chair of the party (though he and they clearly knew that wasn’t the right job for him) but then seeing succession potential plots in any move by any member of her government - paranoia running riot. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for Tebbit - but i’m not promising that will happen again.

MI5 surveillance

Yet another reason why the paper version of The Guardian is my lifeline to sanity - albeit a disconcerting one. An unobtrusive little article on page 10 begins “MI5 has lost control of its data storage and has been obtaining surveillance warrants on the basis of information it knows is false, the high court heard.”

Oh, fine. Not a big problem, then. Certainly nothing significant enough to surface on the TV news, which likes it stories sexy, snappy and - above all - short. The nittty gritty of how the secret services should operate, and what kinds of control could be exercised over them, are left for the nerdy readers of The Guardian and they, we know, are a shrinking, aging band. so here we go, drifting down the plughole, feebly protesting as we go…

Johnson - or Farage?

Today, I had a moment of truth. There’ve been many times over the past three years when I’ve seen newspaper headlines about Brexit which depressed the daylights out of me. But today was different. Today Nigel Farage was assuring the Sunday papers that “You can’t trust Boris to deliver Brexit.”

Now there’s a thing. For years we’ve been hammered over the head with “the will of the people”, where 17 million sturdy Brits told the government what they wanted. Turns out it wasn’t as simple as that. The votes that matter are the ones that backed Farage. You can’t trust Jonson, so presumably the votes he got don’t really count. So how many of the Brexit votes actually count? How many Brexits are there, when we sit down and work it out?

It was a mess at the time. Farage was hammering immigration, Johnson and Gove pretended to be above such nastiness. But all the votes get lumbered together, because it’s really simple - IN or OUT. But it isn’t simple, as we’ve spent three years discovering. It’s a mirage, and calling the vote in the first place was always a mistake. Add on the foreign influence, the breaking of rules over spending money, use of data, deployment of staff, separation of campaigns…If we want this all to be over, we revoke article 50 and start again. Of course there’d be shouts of protest, but we get those all the time anyway, and nothing else offers anything like a way out. .

Abortion in Alabama

We sort of knew it was coming. As the Trump presidency gradually shifted from being a bad joke to a possibility to a definite fact, so we revisited all the things we thought were established and secure, and realised that now they were at risk. Roe v.Wade, the classic case whose name everybody knows, was the legal rock on which American women relied to know that when the possibility of abortion arose, the choice was theirs. Not any more. there’s a queue of states, lining up to show that they’re part of the transformation, encouraged by a Supreme Court whose composition has been brutally, maybe permanently, changed. With Brett Kavanaugh on board, it’s them who have a choice.

There’s always been a hysterical tone about this debate, because the odds are so high, but there’s something seriously unpleasant about this procession of men lining up to address the microphone, confident that their view reflects those of God, the Founding Fathers, and any other male authority figure you care to name. The consequence, of course, will not be queues of smiling babes claiming the life that their criminal mothers sought to deny them, but a massive growth in illegal abortions, pressure, mental illness and general misery. Will Trump really make all that much difference? Oh yes. Yes indeed.

Birmingham Primaries

So many depressing stories just at the moment, but one of the worst is the sustained protests outside primary schools in Birmingham. so, which side are you going to pick? Muslim parents angry that their wishes are being ignored, or teachers trying to deliver a positive programme of health education to which they are required to be committed? It’s a tough situation, but nobody can seriously believe that it’s in the interests of seven year olds to have chanting crowds and placards outside the school gates every day. There’s serious beliefs involved, but there’s also some very nasty manipulation, and teachers getting nothing like the support that they need. Having watched over the years, I can’t help feeling we’re paying the price for decades of politicians looking for the easy vote, encouraging parents - and religious parents in particular - to believe that they can have the schools which suit them and their beliefs, and the teachers are stroppy incompetents who will just have to get into line. Now, just when we need a strong defence of the status of professionals, the value of experts doing complicated work, nobody knows or cares why that matters.

European Drama

A week ago, I did a post about the glories of BT sport. How little I knew. whatever we saw last week was just the hors ‘d’oeuvres, a preamble to this week’s main course, although sadly I almost missed it all. Teusday I went to a poetry reading, organised by a friend, support a good cause…As I sadi to a fellow fan, if Liverpool had lost 1-0 last week, it woul’ld have been a harder decision. I thought they might score a few goals. I never dreamed they’d keep a cl;ean sheet. Messi? Suarez?

Wednesday night I was at home, so I could watch tottenham try to overtake Ajax. after 45 minutes it was embarrassing. Ajax held on to the ball, passed their way out of trouble, Spurs huffed and puffed, but couldn’t put anything together and never looked like threatening to reduce the lead. So I closed down the upstairs computer, and went down to be sociable, and watch a documentary about Brexit. (which was, as it happens, less than ordinary). Then I watch the ten o’clock news, and find out that Lucas Moura has scored a second half hat-trick. The European Cup final will be Liverpool v. Spurs.

Luckily, in these days of catch up, you never actually miss anything, and it’s easy to relive it, even if not the same as seeing it live - see last week. Two totally different games, different kiinds of triumph, and in both cases it was really close - Barcelon and Ajax both had chances to make the pressure even worse. But you have to hand it to them - for keeping going, for believing, for giving everything for the fans…Just amazing. and it’s quite possible to celebrate that without turning it into some kind of jingoistic faith that England rules the waves.

BT Sport

God knows there have been times when I could happily have consigned the entire BT operation into a deep volcano - but not this week. This week I’ve watched, in full, Tottenham v. Ajax, Barcelona v. Liverpool, and Arsenal v. Valencia - and it’s been sheer joy. in the old days it would have been very condensed highlights on BBC or ITV, but now, in retirement leisure, I can squander the whole evening to watch the drama unfold in real time, and over these three particular matches that’s been a delight. That way, you can watch the drama of how teams and managers change what they’re doing - how Tottenham start as total no-hopers, utterly outclassed, and then - by tactical changes and sheer effort - make themselves competitive again. Arsenal, very similar, give away a crumby early goal and seem about to throw it all away, again, until somehow they don’t, and produce fast, stylish attacks which lead to goals and - eventually - an almost healthy result. And then there’s Barcelona. the electric surprise of that opening goal, a breakaway in a tough, tense opening which suddenly changes the whole picture. and massive effort from Liverpool;, fighting their way back into contention, before lucky bounces and ricochets give Barcelona a second, and then - the magic of Messi - an unbelievable third. there is no justice. 3-0 as a scoreline for this game is scandalous. But you have to watch it in full to really grasp that truth. so, despite the adverts and the endless self-congratulatory promotion, thank you, BT sport.

Ukraine Comic tops the poll

Ok, so the US has a game show ghost; why shouldn’t Ukraine have a comedian? It’s really hard to know how to take this news, and it’s not made more hopeful by the fact that this young guy, superficially entertaining and ttractive, is dependent on the backing of a serious oligarch. “I promise I won’t mess it up” he says, as though good intentions were all that’s required. does he have any notion of what he’s taking on, and of how much is currently threatening Ukraine?

But it could be worse. He’s not a Putin puppet, that’s for sure. Putin didn’t congratulate him on his election, and he did go out of his way to stress that his victory showed other ex-Russian federation states that anything was possible. I don’t suppose that went down well in Moscow. And however much you disapprove of the razz-ma-tazz and jokey superficiality of the atmosphere, at least there’s an unpredictable spontaneity about proceedings which will look very strange - and maybe quite appealing - to any Russians who get to follow what’s happening. No, it’s not a happy ending, and yes, he could well get pushed around, but it’s not just Russian business as usual, and the Ukrainians deserve something chirpy to boost their spirits. It’s not as though the West have given them much to cheer about over the last five years.