The year is young, even if some of us are not. I thank my readers for showing interest in my musings over this past year and hope they will hang in there for another.
My feelings about 2015 are that it will fully live up to that old Chinese adage on parting from a friend or acquaintance, ‘May you live in interesting times’. Think about it: no pundit has ever approached an election with so little of an idea as to how it will all pan out. The stakes are incredibly high.
If we elect Red Ed, then the spectre of a departure from the EU recedes as he has no intention of holding a referendum. That should please the Europhiles. On the other hand, if he pursues the path of his hero François Hollande of France, whose policies he’s publicly endorsed, then he will jeopardise a recovery which is the envy of the world and which even the IMF itself said recently was unlikely to happen. To add to confusions and insecurities, it seems distinctly possible that the man who resoundingly lost the Scottish independence referendum and who slunk away with his tail between his legs is now set to bounce back as England’s ‘Kingmaker’ and become part of that same Westminster clique he so scathingly denounced throughout the referendum. But what if Cameron – while gaining the most seats – fails again to win an outright majority? Will he attempt once more to climb into bed with the much derided and ridiculed Clegg? Or will Theresa May’s day have come and the party turf our Dave out in favour of ‘kitten shoes’?
Maybe beer-swilling, cigar-chomping Nigel Farrage will make such a scenario a condition of his anticipated clutch of Ukip MPs joining with the Conservatives to keep Labour out, saying as he laid out his stall, that he couldn’t possibly ask his boys to support a man who once described them as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Working with Theresa would be much more fun, particularly as it would demonstrate that our Nige and his cohorts were not against women per se. But they would point out they needed to be of the right type: the Thatcher/Boudicca variety. The then adolescent Nige still vividly remembers being powerfully affected by the leather-clad, jack-booted ‘Great She Elephant’ (Thatcher) as depicted in ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Private Eye’. He even recalls frissons of sexual excitement at the way she liked bringing her riding crop down on any recalcitrant cabinet member. A favourite victim was poor, timid chancellor Geoffrey Howe. Not known for her sense of humour, even she saw the funny side when Labour’s former chancellor, Dennis Healey, said “being attacked by Geoffrey was like being savaged by a dead sheep”.
So now we are in an election run-up in which absolutely all bets are off. My own feelings tell me that there will be local deals between Ukip and Conservative candidates in which they agree not to split the right-of-centre vote if there is a chance of administering a good kicking to the incumbent Labour MP and giving him the old heave-ho. Such deals, I believe, will be made regardless of what the leadership wishes. So I predict a very messy and fractious bunch of new MPs arriving at Westminster. As well as the usual tired old band of re-treads, there will be loads of gurning, cantankerous Scottish Nationalists – specially authorised by their slippery leader to drive their English compatriots to distraction – as well as a band of screamingly politically incorrect Ukipers and a sad little rump of Lib Dems. I even think Wales – where it used to be said that even a donkey wearing a red rosette would get itself elected – may be ready to give that donkey’s party (Labour) a good hammering and have their own nationalists sent to Westminster in their place. And I wouldn’t put that past even the Cornish in the future – as a way of thanking ‘Calamity Clegg’ for giving them special status – by ridding the Duchy of his long-established Lib Dem MPs and installing their own brand of nationalists in their place.
What seems obvious to all but the Westminsterites is that the ruling class have failed properly to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. With the possible exception of the military, the whole job lot have been found wanting. Even the Church has been shockingly compromised, with children’s homes being added to the time-honoured choirboy repertoire by predatory priests.
The Westminster Village clique are hated for their highhandedness – their unprincipled, venal use of taxpayers’ money and their lack of understanding of what this recession has done to the middle classes. Only last year they accepted a pay rise greater by far than they imposed on the rest of their public sector comrades and billed the five-year-long recession-crucified taxpayer an amount for expenses even bigger than the great expenses year scandal that so shattered their egos a few years ago. Many MPs have not forgiven the press for that excruciating public exposure.
Also hated by many are the police. A long list of terrible failures, from Hillsborough right through to Jimmy Savile, have doomed them. As I write this article it is reported that Cressida Dick, of the appalling, seven-shots-to-the-head Stockwell underground shooting of the innocent Brazilian Charles de Mendez, is to be honoured in the New Year’s Day Honours List. Since that terrible day she has gone from promotion to promotion. Are they intent on rubbing our noses in it to show how truly impotent we, the public, really are? And what about those theatrical, scandalous celebrity dawn raids on suspects’ homes? And their even more scandalous abuse of police bail, whereby they keep them under that career-destroying shadow for anything up to a year before, in most cases, releasing them?
The judiciary have fared little better. They are hated for their secret courts; their refusal to return murderers and rapists to their countries of origin; as well as its lawyers who, at vast public expense, fight for these criminals to stay here to the tune of £millions.
And let’s not forget either the town halls. Once the Town Clerk was a respected figure. Now his grandly titled successor, the CEO (they do love these self-important terms, don’t they, even having their own ‘Cabinets’) expects to be paid twice what the PM is paid, and their minions similarly rewarded. These obscenely paid jobsworths wouldn’t last one minute in the private sector. I doubt if more than a thimbleful of them would get shortlisted even for a job interview. While looking after themselves, they happily dispense with large numbers of their own, and as many of the more sensitive public services, as they can get away with. The idea being, of course, to discredit the whole notion of economies and getting value for money, as every household has had to do for years.
In similarly low esteem are the Revenue Collectors. The public despise them for their cowardly ‘sweetheart deals’, sucking-up-to and leniency towards the likes of Google, Starbucks and the rest while they mercilessly traduce the public. Even now they are laying plans to lift thousands out of individuals’ bank accounts without so much as a by-your-leave, never mind a court order.
But most of all the public hate the bankers, whom many believe brought us to this sorry pass. They blame them for leading this shameless descent into amorality and corrupt practices. These same miscreants still insist they are worth their obscene bonuses. Not a single one of the banks’ crooks is behind bars, and yet we know that criminality on an industrial scale was rife and that the sums involved ran to hundreds of billions. Compared to these Libor rate fixings, mis-sold PPI policies and companies deliberately driven into bankruptcy in order to asset strip them, anything that certain sections of the press did was trivial and small beer – regrettable though it was. Indeed, these banker boys never do or did anything at the petty level. It was they, after all, that managed the extraordinary feat of nearly crashing the entire global financial system. Millions went on the dole and the public was plunged into the misery of a five-year fightback right across the developed world to restore normality after having had hundreds of billions sequestered to prop up a bankrupt system which was judged ‘too big to fail’ and faced, in the process, a decade of falling living standards. How nice to be a bank and run a business where no matter what you do you never have to face the consequences. Even better is that when you make a cock-up and your criminality is exposed, you get away with it with barely a slap on the wrist and expect to be rescued and given another chance.
Not so lucky were the journos. While not for one minute did our Dave consider employing the majesty of the law to find out what went wrong with banking, name names and expose the culprits, the journos of the press – who had so embarrassed his Westminster chums – would have to face that majesty in their place. It was payback time. Into the frame stepped the infamous Leveson Inquiry. Andy Coulson and many of his associates went to Choky and continue to do so. Meanwhile those same banker chums continue to traipse in and out of Downing Street as though nothing ever happened, and in numbers greater than all the rest of British industry and commerce put together (which shows who’s got the ear of the ‘posh boys’, doesn’t it, and why they will never have to wear prison blue).
So, come May, don’t be surprised if this anti-establishment backlash assumes massive proportions and brings a dramatic reversal to years of falling voter turnout when ‘the plebs’ set out to overturn the establishment’s applecart. Either that or it will be close to a boycott if they decide en masse to stay away, taking the view that their votes will change nothing: ‘A plague on all your houses!’
Traditionally any leader presiding over such a climb-back from certain catastrophe, boasting 1.75 million new jobs and facing an opposition leader so utterly devoid of anything associated with leadership, could expect to be massively ahead in the polls. Yet Cameron is not. Something very strange is going on out there.
In all these musings I have said not a word about what is happening in the broader world, and surely they are terrible. No pundit either, in that confused and bloody mayhem, can point to a way out. That subject must be for another article. But for us, in the meantime, let’s raise our glasses for this New Year of 2015 and pray that answers will be found abroad too. We can take genuine pride in having overtaken France to be the world’s 5th largest economy, and they say that by 2030 we will have overtaken Germany as well. Glory be! The last time we were there was 1954, but that was because we destroyed most of her economy in WWII. She had originally overtaken us in 1894 and that’s when our troubles really began. Clever, industrious Fritz got too big for his jackboots.
Very soon now we are going to be asked to vote for civilian police commissioners – a controversial proposal not much liked by plod.
It has got off to a bad start because of the calibre of some of the applicants, many of whom one suspects view it as an excellent chance to climb aboard the gravy train as well as throw their weight around. One of these applicants, the clownish buffoon and former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, has indeed a lot of that to throw around. Nonetheless, I believe that the concept is sound and as the years pass we will get genuine public-spirited men and women of stature and proven track record to oversee their force.
The reason I feel that the concept is good is that I believe that certain elements of the police are close to being out of control and act as though they are a law unto themselves: look at the incredible Hillsborough cover-up; the striking down of that poor man Ian Tomlinson who died in London and was going about his business with no thought of joining a demonstration. Then there was the shooting dead of a young, deeply disturbed barrister Mark Saunders, also in London, and the seven-bullets-to-the-head execution of the hapless Brazilian young man, Charles de Menezes on the underground – as well as many, many other incidents which have caused deep disquiet among the public. Accusations of thuggish behaviour on an increasing scale are levelled at the police.
The advent of jihadist terrorism appears to have provided an unarguable cover for the issue of more and more firearms and a tipping point seems not far off where every Bobby will have a pistol at his hip. More guns will, inevitably, lead to a greater use of them. Terrorism seems to have provided a ‘catch all’ excuse to usher in a whole range of repressive measures. Tony Blair, as with so many things which came back to bite him – such as devolution – embraced the whole scaremongering agenda. And yet, more than anyone, we were familiar with terrorism – a very competent form. We had thirty years of it with the IRA but yet, despite all the carnage such as the Brighton bombing which almost killed Margaret Thatcher and much more, we kept our nerve. We did not move towards arming our police.
Since Robert Peel set up the police, one of the glories of our country – one that has amazed the rest of the world – is that we have been able to maintain law and order without recourse to firearms. So the police know there is deep disquiet at the way things are developing.
‘If we cannot have guns’, seems to be their new mantra, ‘then let us have tasers’. And what do we see? A 43 per cent rise in their use in one year. We see a blind 61-year-old architect, who has already had a stroke, felled with 50,000 volts of excruciating pain.
In all the many instances of police malpractice there are precious few instances of officers going to gaol. They investigate themselves and produce what – predictably and in too many cases – the public perceive as a less than fair outcome. One of the useful actions that the new commissioners could address themselves to is to civilianise these investigations. That is a much needed measure and one that should be applied to each and every professional body. By all means let them have representation on that body, but not enough to determine an investigation’s outcome.
Once upon a time the police would go about their business – as the military is wont to say – in shirt sleeve order during the summer. Today they parade like Robocop, festooned with all manner of silly gadgets. Every new device that comes on the market they are fair game for; it rapidly becomes must-have. Soon they will be weighted down to such an extent that it becomes impossible for them to give chase. In any case, too many of them are out of condition and overweight that it would be impossible anyway. That too is a subject that the new commissioners could address: annual fitness checkups.(By the way, I don’t recall seeing many overweight soldiers locking horns with the Taliban. As an ex-health club owner I would be happy to advise on what needs to be done. Get down to the gym boys! I’ll meet you there, but don’t bother bringing your body armour.)
N.B. I was stopped by the police the other day after collecting my son from the railway station as I forgot to put my lights on. My car was given the once over; I was breathalysed; the works. They were a couple of fine young men – polite, fit and a credit to the force. All is not lost.
I was astonished recently to learn that Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister whom I always thought of as something of a libertarian, should seek to clamp on the land of Magna Carta a Bill of wholesale restrictions on open justice.
He wants a special body of lawyers to sit behind closed doors conducting cases in which the accused cannot defend himself in time-honoured fashion. Incredibly, the accused will not even know with what he is charged nor have the right to face his accuser. He will be defended by a government-appointed lawyer he will never meet or speak with. And a Minister of the Crown, who may well be trying to protect himself or his department from well justified exposure, gets to decide whether the case in question merits this very special treatment.
Now, if this isn’t the very purest form of Kafka, then I’d like to know what is. Certainly every tinpot dictator of modern times would love it.
As you may have guessed from previous writings, the preservation of our ancient liberties is something of a hobbyhorse of mine. As I see it, we didn’t create, over centuries, the great edifice of The Common Law – admired around the world and used by over a quarter of it – only to see it dismantled in many of its essentials by a latter day band of political pygmies.
It is not as though I believe that it should be set in aspic, never to be changed. Some years ago I had deep misgivings when New Labour proposed to change the law of Double Jeopardy, whereby an acquitted person could never be tried on the same charge twice.
I came to believe that if science (DNA) could prove incontrovertibly at a later date that a guilty man had been acquitted then it would not be natural justice to let him continue to get away with it. There were, I considered, many good reasons for my earlier misgivings.
If, for instance, an oppressive government or police force were determined on a guilty verdict then it could keep on coming back for another bite of the cherry until it got the result it wanted.
Also, were the police to know that they could always have another try, they would not feel under the same compulsion to go that extra mile to ferret out all the available evidence the first time round. It would also be unfair on the acquitted person – who might believe that the powers-that-be were out to get him – to ask him to live under such a cloud of deferred retribution. But amendments were put in place that held to the double jeopardy principal except in the most serious of cases, so I was satisfied.
I have long felt that New Labour were cavalier in its attitude to the protections which The Common Law bestowed on us. When terrorism reared its ugly head in the aftermath of 9/11 they leaped to panic stations. They seemed to have forgotten that we, as a nation, had long experience of dealing with that particular sick and murderous element in society – thirty years, no less.
The IRA, of whom we are speaking, were, moreover, far more accomplished practitioners of the dark and terrible arts of mass murder than the Johnny-come-lately Jihadists who had grown up in our midst. Sadly, their bombs went off first time on nearly every occasion. The result was that, on a head count of victims, the IRA were light years ahead of their successors.
But New Labour saw it differently. They rushed through a whole range of measures which began the long assault on things we held dear: which had taken centuries of struggle to achieve. Now we have a new government of a different political hue, but it, too – inexplicably – continues the assault and even carries it into realms hitherto unthought-of. It has to be stopped.
Luckily, these new proposals have raised a great hue and cry from almost every quarter, including 57 of the 69 specially appointed lawyers who want nothing to do with it: bless their courage and probity.
Yet Cameron is supportive of the tragically misguided Clarke. No doubt the police and the security services would like – where they chose – to dispense secret ‘justice’ along with the hospital authorities, coroners’ courts, government Ministers and the Ministry of Defence – all of whom, it is proposed, at the minister’s discretion, can impose in camera hearings.
Were they to have had these powers, we would never had learned the truth with regard to the seven shots to the head, underground shooting of poor Charles de Mendez, mistaken for a terrorist; nor the lack of body armour and helicopters and the use of thin skinned vehicles which led to the death of so many of our brave soldiers; nor the lamentable toll of scandalous hospital deaths and shocking mistreatment of our old people; nor the truth about Princess Diana’s death; nor that of Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter; nor even, who knows, of the former Energy Secretary’s alleged wrongdoings. All of them bring acute embarrassment to the people and agencies involved and they would rather we knew nothing of their incompetence or couldn’t-care-less attitude.
Truth and openness, in my view, trumps every other consideration. Only in the most clear-cut threats to national security are we entitled to consider secrecy.
If David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ means a smaller, less intrusive state and more power to the people then I am all for it. Power, inevitably, seeks more power. But I am not concerned how much power accrues to the people; the more the better: they can be trusted. But individuals and agencies must always be constrained, and a free press is there to help us to achieve that.
Servants of the state must also be held to account and answer for serious shortcomings. In industry, commerce and even sport, heads roll regularly: not so in the public sector. This must change. How often is abject failure rewarded not with the sack, but with promotion. This truly incenses the public.
Everybody knows what a failure the head of the Borders Agency has made of her job. And not just that, but the one before. Yet she gets promoted to head up HM Revenue & Customs, an agency failing almost as badly as her own and which desperately needs real and proven talent not failure.
What a way to do business. But that’s big government for you! Spitting in the eye of its paymasters at every turn.