Blood on the carpet

The dust is just settling. Those who were once staunch Boris allies are now cast down and new faces, some unknown faces, raised up.

There are rewards for those who were for Boris Johnson from the beginning, but that is not a pattern, and some former Remainers have been raised up. Really, there are no Remainers and Leavers now, and we hear that the very word ‘Brexit’ has been banned from Whitehall, which is commanded henceforth to look forward, not back.

Sajid Javid was once introduced to me as the future Prime Minister. I think we can pass over that now. That is a deadly position to hold, is it not?  Solomon began his reign by righteously slaying all those who threatened his position, including his own brother, Adonijah, Joab the general and Shimei, who had taunted Solomon’s father David during Absalom’s rebellion. The advantage of democracy is that political change can be effected without bloodshed, as long as everyone follows the rules.

Jeremy Hunt is not back in the government, I see.

The fate of the once-great was a constant theme of the Middle Ages. Often the scion of a Welsh princely family dreamed that if it had not been for circumstances he might have had lands and a coronet himself, so he raised an army and to all who should follow him he promised gold, they receiving graves instead. Then there were the tangled family successions of the grandsons of Edward III tearing England apart over theoretical rights to estates, duchies or the Crown itself.  In the modern Westminster system, no one has a right to office, but that does not stop the natural feeling in the breast of the deprived man that something of his own has been unjustly taken from him.

(The law makes it clear that an office under the Crown is at the whim of the Queen with no right to notice or compensation. Mind you, the law also makes it clear that the Queen may prorogue Parliament and that did nor stop the Court of Session and the Supreme Court from interfering.)

The question now is whether the ousted ministers will sit quietly, looking wistfully at their broken career paths, or will plot amongst themselves a startling coup, from which they would either triumph or be cast into the depths of deselected Tartarus, like other tortured, Grieving souls of the past who now lie forgotten men. Those who went with good grace may find a place again, or not. There are too many talented Members of Parliament to find them all a salaried job.

As I observed during the Last Days of May, “Whoever then stands on the steps of Downing Street, they will make enemies, from those they have not favoured as they believe they deserve.” As Clifford says in Henry VI Part 3:

“The smallest worm will turn, being trodden on.”

Maybe Sajiv Javid is dreaming of riding triumphant again through the barred gates of Downing Street like Warwick:

“Tell him from me that he hath done me wrong, And therefore I’ll uncrown him ere’t be long.”

– but his is no kingmaker. Boris drives all before him, as long as he keeps that momentum going.

One pattern just emerging is the rise of ‘blue wall’ members. Grand infrastructure schemes to connect the neglected North are one thing, but promoting their new Members begins.  A senior job cannot fall to an MP in place barely more than a month, but northern MPs are appearing – Simon Clarke of Middlesbrough for one. It helps too that the PM’s senior adviser is from County Durham.

The headline news has been the downfall of Sajiv Javid, attributed to his refusal to merge his SpAD team with that of Number 10. It also came just days after Javid had been relentlessly attacked by Conservative members and the Tory-leaning press for suggesting tax increases.  Only future days will tell whether the latter suggestion was a Number 10 or Number 11 initiative. His fiscal rules, of a steadily reducing deficit and limits to capital spending, were important and should survive.  Promises to shower the North with gold do not sit well with this though.

If asked to paint the picture emerging from the new ministry, I am stuck for description. All this is speculation, and I must leave the detail for those who actually know what they are taking about.

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By Boris Johnson:

By others

The Ulster Bridge

Is it then to be a bridge? A tunnel? A floating tunnel? For cars, or trains, or bicycles?

In one of the richest nations of the Earth, such an endeavour is not beyond consideration, but for over a hundred years the idea of a fixed bridge across the North Channel to join Great Britain to Ireland has always been in the ‘too hard’ tray. Now it is being looked at again, and I should emphasise ‘being looked at’ not ‘being done’.

The Channel Tunnel works because it was built with private funds with a view to profit from the services running through it.  Spaffing taxpayers’ money at a project is the best way to ensure wastage, overruns and a poor quality build. The Ulster Bridge or Ulster Tunnel (more of which later) will be too important a piece of infrastructure to leave it in the government’s ham-fisted paws.

Has anyone asked Elon Musk?

The Chinese would whack something across the sea with barely a thought, and hope it does not fall down when a Party official was driving over. We would expect the job to be done properly, the penalty for failure being fines from the Health and Safety Executive or, worse still, financial loss.

It does seem strange that with all the vast engineering projects spanning the world and in fact going  beyond it, all the millions of miles of tunnels, viaducts, cable networks, trans-continental pipelines and buildings that reach the sky raised in merely months, that our own little ditch is not bridged. Many longer tunnels have been built.

It is not as if the idea has not been considered before. In the 1890s there was a serious proposal published for a submersed floating tunnel anchored at Whitehead (south of Larne) and at Portpatrick.  Every generation since has seen ideas come and go. Today we are told to think of a bridge; tomorrow it may be a tunnel.  Engineers tell me that this idea is one which the large civil engineering companies will have as concept pieces in back drawers somewhere, and the sort of thing they hand to trainees as exercises. More than a few back drawers will be rattling open now.

The unique qualities of the North Channel, both natural and man-made, make it a new challenge.  The tunnel beneath the English Channel is no longer than one beneath the North Channel would need to be, but it is a bore largely through sand and under a shallow sea: the North Channel has hard rock and a deep sea trench with possible geological instability. Beaufort’s Dyke right in the course of where a tunnel or a bridge would go, dives to a thousand feet below sea level (although it may be possible to find a point “only” 500 feet down) and, just for further amusement, after the War more than a million tons of unused ordnance was dropped into it: you do not want a million tons of unstable shells and bombs beside the footings or a bridge or above a deep tunnel.

This assumes that the tunnel or bridge would cross the North Channel at the main ferry point, between the east coast of Antrim (or Down) and the Rhinns of Galloway, which is a twenty-two mile crossing (one I have sailed in a dead calm and in a storm). Another route is from the north coast of County Antrim to the Mull of Kintyre. That is so short a distance that I could stand on the Argyll side and watch the cars in Antrim, and the Beaufort Trench is not there. Once there was a ferry (with a Brussels subsidy, naturally) sailing from Campbeltown to Portrush – it closed because there was no custom, and that is the problem with this route – not just that it would wreck two beautiful, peaceful spots, but it is from no commercial place to no commercial place.  Maybe a twelve-mile Argyll-Antrim tunnel would create its own dynamic, but it is just the wrong place.

Back to structures, and I said it was a choice between bridge and tunnel; the mock-up used in the press release has a remarkable variant:  a tunnel from Larne beneath the main shipping lane, emerging in the sea to rise up onto a bridge! That is reminiscent of one of the odder plans for a road crossing of the English Channel, with bridges out into the sea ending in spiral ramps down to a tunnel.

The plan in 1890 was a serious one, for a rail link using a tunnel, a submerged tubular bridge or a solid causeway, or it might be a mixture, and the engineer who proposed it was no dreamy student but the great Luke Livingston Macassey, who created Belfast’s fresh water system, and he had been working on it since the 1860s. An article can still be found somewhere in the archives, and it is recalled in a book ‘Mapping the Railways’ (see below).

It is an intriguing thought: a tunnel carved in the normal way until the sudden 500-foot deep then carried on an undersea bridge. The bridge would be subject to the corrosion of the sea and to the deep-sea currents for which the North Channel is known, but not to the tides or storms, as an exposed bridge would be, and having been tossed about in those storms myself, I would feel more comforted being carried snug beneath them.

Modernity solutions for unusual engineering solutions. Those proposing new manned landings of the Moon or a base on Mars have suggested first sending autonomous robots to build substantial accommodation ready for the star-sailors who will follow. If it is possible to have robots build complex structures in extra-terrestrial locations, without needing rest, undaunted by time, then to send them tunnelling beneath the sea and building a causeway across the trench seems no great stretch. If they take twenty years, well, we have been waiting a hundred and fifty already. I am no engineer, but it seems reasonable to assume that if ‘bots could build and shore-up even a narrow tunnel and place rails within it, that provides a transport link that can start earning its keep, and the link necessary to dig a wider tunnel.

As to the unexploded munitions, that is another puzzle. Is there a market for deep-sea mining of the iron and chemicals constituted in those discarded weapons? Here too robots have a place as they may be more disposable than flesh and blood miners and do not have to come up for air.

The economics prescribe that the tunnel or bridge would most probably be for a railway not a road (a foot and cycle tunnel beside it would be appreciated by vigorous travellers, but we didn’t get it in the tunnel to France). A practical point though: the railways of Great Britain and of most of Europe are all of the same rail gauge, 4 feet ​8 12 inches, which is why the Channel Tunnel can enable a train to run from Inverness to Constantinople, but the Irish gauge is 5 feet 3 inches. That then would require a transhipment port at one end or other of the tunnel, or some dual-gauge track to such a node, or tearing up and relaying all the railway lines across Ulster and Ireland, or a curse on both their houses and doing it as an vacuum-tunnel maglev system.

There are many intriguing ideas to be thrown about in the next few years and many dead-ends, but it must be considered.

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The Babylonish Captivity of the Church, politically

The clergy of the Church of England in my personal experience are for the most part quick-witted, intelligent, learned, prayerful and determined for the welfare of all people. However they appear readily to gravitate politically towards socialism and social liberalism. This is a contradiction and a frustration for conservatives.

In the Georgian Age, the Church of England was called ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ – that was in the great days of politics and the degenerate days of the church: the Church of England represented establishment, which was the very purpose of the Tories, though the Church was stulted by its own establishment. The Whigs favoured non-conformism.

Now the nation is very different and the Church of England is seeking its own form. Within it there is but one purpose, namely the good of mankind, which is unarguable. Then comes the question: how can you save the world.

“Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.”

T S Eliot

It is too easy, as a layman or a clergyman, to seek those systems so perfect that no one need ever be good. Here the Labour Party’s rhetoric fills the gap, promising what can never be, while conservatism, pragmatic, promising nothing but grinding on, achieves quietly, accused of meanness while bringing prosperity.

The Conservative idea looks to the individual, while socialism talks corporately of classes. The scriptures talk of compassion for the poor, as do socialists – but talking is not achieving. If your whole outlook is to society as a whole then a philosophy of the individual may seem wrong.

Except, that Christianity is about the individual. There is no corporate salvation, only individual salvation. It is all about the individual man, woman and child and their individual relationship with God through one individual, Jesus of Nazareth, the one Messiah. The Kingdom of God is won not corporately but soul by soul.

Even on the care for the poor, at no point does Jesus nor do any of the prophets condemn enterprise and profit, but exploitation, abuse and the individual’s own failings: several parables praise the wise businessman (and in the Book of Proverbs Chapter 31 praises a wise businesswoman).

Without repeating wholesale (not in this post anyway) Hobbes’s observations on the Kingdome of Darknesse, clergy have lost their way in finding the wrong solution to the wrong issue.

There may be more to it though, in deep philosophical and theological terms, and I am not a clergyman and so can speak only speculatively.

A better vice would be a leading politically active, thinking churchman, sound in theology: such a one as Canon Dr Giles Fraser. He has framed the question of politics in terms of Augustinianism versus Pelagianism, a topic I explored some time ago in different guises:

Writing in UnHerd he describes an abandonment of the left and an examination of the failings of that philosophy, and why the socialist philosophy is so nasty:

How to win the clergy over again, to break the recalcitrant vicar from simple attachment to an irreligious creed of failure to one which better achieves their aim; that is another question.

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Minutiae – the big failing

There are many wise heads in senior positions in Whitehall (and many who think themselves wise, but they are easily run around). The upper levels of the Civil Service are staffed by the best of those who are allowed through the flawed selection process.

In that case, why is everything that comes out of government a bit rubbish?

The chain of action

I have observed the top brains making high-level decisions to mould policy from policy, which decisions are then passed down to the lesser levels to flesh out the practicalities; then these decisions (through however many levels are required) eventually come down to the junior level to put into effect.

At that junior level there may be bright sparks, but mainly those who just want to do a day’s work according to their best understanding of instructions, and go home. They have not sat in the top-level meetings where the strategy is grown and the purposes are defined, and get the idea only through Chinese whispers.

A jobbing clerk has little incentive nor ability to “own” a project. Work to the end of the day, play safe, do not be shouted at – do not use initiative. You can see everyday carelessness in detail such as documents written on computers still set up with Microsoft defaults, US-English and font styles never used n the text, or forms which look nice but which cannot be completed on-screen without reformatting. You can see it in forms which cannot cope with variants in personal circumstances or understanding.

Form design could be a whole volume of jeremiad. Perhaps the junior officers tasked with it are told not to spend too much time, but it is a false economy as every shortcut can cause an exponential effect of wasted time when members of the public try to grapple with it.

In the detail of regulations too, the same effect is seen.  I lose track of the number of times I have had to intervene in a consultation on new regulations to point out the obvious that has been misunderstood or just passed over as tedious detail.

In 2007 I even saw a draft Statutory Instrument referring to such countries as ‘Portuguese Timor’, ‘Kampuchea’, ‘Zaire’ and (amazingly) ‘Cyrenaica’. I was able to point this out before they were published. The enacted SI still has Portuguese Timor and Zaire, amongst other anachronisms.

Details are off-putting to those with better things to do with their limited time, but detail matters because it is the level at which members of the public interact with the state.

Furthermore, every failure at the interface requires more work, more calls to helplines, more repetition, more frustration and more justification for the individual circumventing the system my misreporting. Failure in detail costs money and frustrates the purpose of the government activity concerned.

Political style

It makes no sense for the government at the political level to say that they are in favour of, say, equal treatment of every part of the realm if documents produced at the junior level forget the existence of Scotland and Ulster, or mention them only as an add-on. When the government is committed to preserving British interests, it makes no sense if online forms refer to the Falkland Islands as the ‘Malvinas’ (which is the case in some drop-downs I have found).

Where there is a fixed political policy which should be reflected across the board in government communications and actions, there should be consistency.

Away from policy, there are also fixed standards which may mean nothing to middle- and junior-level officials but which are important in the wider scheme of things: for example in any publication referring the armed forces, one always say “naval and military” not “military and naval”, because the Royal Navy is the senior service. How many would be aware of that one? Grammatical standards, presentational style and good practice – all are should be kept up to ensure the government machine not only works but is respected.

One cannot expect every individual in the civil service to be aware of every political or stylistic policy possibly affecting what he or she is doing by drudge -work though, so consideration is needed as to how to bring consistency to the sprawling machinery of government. Some better communication of policy priorities is a possibility but it can only have a limited effect given how mealy-mouthed government communications are and given the limited hours there are in a day for a junior official to do his or her work. Therefor another approach is needed.


The complexity of the chain of command suggests a high risk of failure.  Experience shows this happens very frequently. There are systems in place to minimise the failures, but systems create their own inflexibilities, and there will be no committee tasked with correcting errors, no cross-departmental thinking and no method of intervention.

In that case, Whitehall needs a mechanism for direct intervention could be deployed when a system has gone awry. This is micro-intervention.

A μ-intervention unit would be cross-departmental, operating out of the Cabinet Office or Privy Council Office (or even the Lord Chancellor’s department, since the Lord Chancellor in days of old was responsible for standards in official documents).

It is little use if it just writes standards that might not be followed: that is useless on its own. In any case there are committees writing standards, as for example in the digital realm the Government Digital Service and the ‘Design Community’ do – and yet forms are still written badly.

No – a micro-intervention unit would need authority to dig into systems at every level, accessing computers directly to fix mistakes and make improvements.

It is petty detail that they would strike at, but with the intent to save more time, more money, and improve the practical interface between the citizen and the state.

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Is the Housing Court dead?

Two threads were being spun before the election, in fact during the May ministry, on changes to housing law, and both were bad ideas.  One was to abolish assured shorthold tenancies retrospectively, or as the spinners put it to ‘end no-fault evictions’. The other was to establish a new Housing Court.  The former got through to the Conservative and Unionist Manifesto and to the Queen’s Speech.  I looked at it some months ago intending to revisit it:

The second thread, creating a Housing Court, has gone rather quiet, with the occasional squeak being heard.  A consultation process began at the end of 2018 from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. The Law Society were opposed and other bodies responded just by talking about resourcing (or in plain terms, wanting more taxpayers’ money). Is the Housing Court then dead?

The idea of  a dedicated Housing Court is understandable but flawed in concept for three reasons:  first of all it not only putting the cart before the horse, but is failing to include the horse at all; secondly, it will be subject to interest group capture; thirdly, it does not address the major issue.

There is a genuine, deep-seated problem with the current system, and if you doubt that I recommend sitting in a county court office all day.  You may frequently see a strong man break down in tears as his case is adjourned yet again and another month’s mortgage payments are to be made while no rent is coming in and no remedy is forthcoming. The tenant is thumbing his nose at his landlord, paying no rent and may be wrecking the flat so as to make it unlettable, but the landlord cannot do anything.

Some urgent action is needed.  A Housing Court is the wrong action though.

Cart / horse

The fundamental flaw in housing law is that it is complex, hard to find and self-contradictory.  The only experts are those who practice constantly in the field.  There is no single, comprehensive code of housing law.  Instead, innumerable Act of Parliament and statutory instruments have to be read together, and anything read in an older statute may have been replaced by a later one, or even by a section retrospectively inserted into an even older Act.

Typically an Act is passed after a report or a scandal calling for action and may be focussed on a particular list of mischiefs or alleged problems, adding a new complexity rather than smoothing the landscape.

There are contradictions, and inconsistent approaches, which is unsurprising given the piecemeal way in which the law is made.  This inconsistent and incomprehensive branch of law is the fundamental problem which landlords, tenants and courts face, and no new court should be put in place until it has coherent law which it can administer.  If though the law were rationalised, then there would be no need for a new court.

Interest-group capture

Interest group capture befouls many worthy endeavours.  It is a form of regulatory capture, by which a particular lobbying body or interest group takes control of a regulatory or judicial function, and a new Housing Court would be an open target.

The pressure for a new court has come from frustrated landlords, finding their claims for rent and possession pushed back in a queue of other cases The idea has indeed been attacked by tenants’ groups as a landlords’ weapon, but we would soon find that the system is captured by the opposite interest.

The body representing Citizen’s Advice Bureaux saw the idea as creating a landlords’ court and advised that “the power imbalance between landlords and tenants could be made worse”. Shelter, more interestingly, were positive on it (as long as they are given more taxpayers’ money), which alone should make us suspicious.

The idea may be to staff a court with those who spend all their time in the field so as to become experts. However the staff must be recruited, and applications will of course come from those with a particular interest in the field, and successful candidates will be those with long practice acting for tenants.  It needs little imagination to guess the socio-political tendency of the main applicant base, and who will in due course form the interview panel.

There should not be an ideological divide between pro-landlord and pro-tenant as if they were different creatures. Justice should be a neutral forum applying the law even-handedly between individuals, not classes, as it is in the general courts. However in a specialist court that ideal is distorted. The false narrative of eternal class-war is embedded in many and it has informed the shaping of the statutes defining housing law (to the extent that it they have any discernible shape). This idea of opposing, class-based sides will shape the mindset of those seeking to work in any new single-issue court.

The judges may remain fair and neutral, but they are influenced and briefed by their support staff. Then as each decision forms a precedent for the next, the direction of the court as a defender of tenants against their landlords will become institutionalised.

Fundamental toothlessness

A third issue was identified by the Civil Justice Council, which opposed the creation of a specialist court:  the judges currently do understand the law and do apply it justly, but there is poor enforcement.

A thing little spoken-of in the law is that effective landlords are those who ignore the law and evict tenants in ways it does not countenance.  Therefore good landlords are penalised by the Housing Acts for the failings of ruthless landlords, but ruthless landlords are less bothered.

Essentially, if the court eventually orders an eviction, the process of removing the tenant is slow and expensive.  There are too few bailiffs and getting an appointment takes too long, and the bailiff’s costs (and those of a locksmith) must be paid by the landlord already impoverished by months of legal proceedings.

Without enforcement, the courts are no more than vanity.  It is a neglected field though:  those concerned with civil justice do not want to look at the sordid business of actually laying hands on a man and hurling him from his erstwhile home. That is what the whole procedure is there for though: to authorise the landlord to get his own property back. Without that step, all the bewigged judges, clerks, staff and lawyers are pointless.

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