Masked unmasked

I think some people must like wearing a mask, maybe even getting a perverse thrill from it.

There was a time, when it was all novel, that a particular sort of person, and we all know them, would wear a plague mask aggressively, as a statement of their assertion of a moral superiority. The same people would theatrically cast their hands in front of their faces and cross the road on encountering a fellow human being. Before the epidemic, people rarely crossed the road to avoid me outside election campaigns.

There are fashions in masks, as there had to be, with ladies wearing masks to match their dresses, and businessmen in black masks matching their suits. A few medical masks persist, and I do not know if that is because they are easy to grab, or because wearers think they are somehow more ‘proper’. The muzzles are disappearing though. Masking is a minority pursuit.

It is wearing off. You still see people driving while masked, alone in their own car – is it superstition, or just  that they never take it off? On the London Underground there is still a command to go masked, and just over half of passengers do so on the morning; few in the evening. Even London Underground staff don’t bother – although reading station announcements though a muzzle would not help anyone.

This is a happier land being relaxed. We like a bit of panic and peril to add spice to life, but life must go back to normal. The disease has not gone, but it is no longer frightening:  you used to hear someone had got the Wuhan flu and pray for them in case it was their deathbed, but now we are vaccinated anyone still getting one of its 57 varieties will be assumed to have a snuffle if that.

This makes the recent scenes in Europe so bizarre. Riots, streets burning, a rebellion against lockdown – when lockdowns here seem unthinkable. Cities across Europe have deserted streets even as the shops were hoping to trade for Christmas, while our cities are buzzing. There is no excuse for violent scenes, even if the anger is understandable. Rotterdam, considered such a libertarian city that crime is a way of life and chuckled at, now has orders stay inside and fester, and that is intolerable, and in The Hague, and in Belgium too the story is the same.

The thing about the Netherlands (and its spawn, Belgium) is that while in form they are liberal and democratic, that is barely felt on the ground the way we understand it.  Those systems have succeeded in the principal aim of enfeebling the country to make it no threat to their neighbours, but the governing classes are far from the people their actions affect. The nation is disaffected: the rioting is just an outburst of a frustration that has been building for a generation or two and now finds its last straw. Perhaps the Dutch government is starting to fear the fate of Johan de Witt, the Grand Pensionary, who angered the people, so that he was seized by the mob in The Hague, murdered and dismembered  in the crowd (and allegedly subjected to cannibalism). Let us hope the winter calms the rioters’ ardour before they get such ideas.

All that is a world away though from the British experience.  We walk free, we laugh at the petty admonitions still proclaimed at us from dumb boards. Those Tube trains, once echoingly empty, now have standing-room only again. The city streets are packed, and the tills are ringing. Best of all, faces are smiling.

The fate of the European countries can only be speculation. (Perhaps their governments will run up so much debt from the endless lockdown that they will go bankrupt and a British consortium can buy them up cheap in a fire-sale. A private company ruling such countries could hardly do worse than their government have done.) Here, we are thriving, and as long as politicians are not swayed by panic then we will continue to lift, or will if taxes come down.

The masks are a sign of the the old epidemic which has passed. they mark imprisonment by fear. If they are of use, very well – wear it. They are a still vanishing phase, ebbing away. Ultimately, you have to be the change you want to see, and I want to see normality.

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Deadly, green distraction

It is not right – the thrust of the green movement displayed around COP26 is deadly in many ways. It has become a pagan cult, we have long known that, but worse: it is displacement activity, preventing the world from taking real action. Virtue signalling kills.

We have seen the central focus of COP26, of Extinction Rebellion, namely the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and that this focus has overwhelmed all other considerations. It is today’s scare, and has become the touchstone for measuring virtue – but all that is nonsense. This is not to say that carbon dioxide and other gases do not heat up the world, but a moment’s thought should throw it into shadow. If we turn to gaze at this one issue to the exclusion of all others, we cannot hear the weeping in the shadows. Perhaps that is the point: we do not want to hear it.

If the whole world were to go “carbon neutral” overnight, it would be two hundred years before the composition of the atmosphere will rebalance. The world will continue to heat up, mildly. Arguing over going neutral in 2030 or 2060 is not irrelevant – it is the build-up over many years which would matter – it is that this is not an on-off switch. If the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is enough to heat the world by a degree or two on average, it will continue to heat up long after we have all gone over to clean energy. What are we doing in those years and centuries?

If the changing climate is harmful to vulnerable parts of the world, why is everything being done on the possible cause, but nothing being done to alleviate the results?  I suspect because the latter requires actual work involving actual people – just deindustrialising for carbon dioxide neutrality  is a matter of charts, laws, statistics, and it is something you can scream about in the street – actually helping societies to adapt to a change in the weather is unglamorous and might involve doing something practical. That is too horrible for an individual to contemplate.

That many churches should have abandoned the Gospel for this Gaia worship is revolting. (Not all have, and thank goodness for the fixed lectionary on in these times to keep them to a course.) I take it as  a way to be seen to do something while not actually doing anything, or making an actual effort.

Worse than this: the practical solution to many of these issues is to lift people out of poverty so that they can make their own solutions and protect their families, but the actions demanded by those in ivory towers in wealthy nations would be to close their economies and drive them into poverty.  It is no wonder if those in the developing world think that the West is saying “we became rich through burning coal and oil to lift ourselves to unprecedented wealth, but you are not allowed to.” Farmers in the developing world will be harmed by a changing climate, but they will be harmed even more by being forced into poverty. Just seeing one problem and not all the others is  lethal. It is like those comic books where Batman saves the girl but destroys Gotham City and presumably kills thousands to do so. The world is not a comic.

If we then take it that the climate is changing, which we must because the climate is always changing. then the first duty is to determine where it will change and how, and to adapt for it. Blame is just a harmful distraction. If rainfall will lessen, then hardier crops are required; if rainfall will increase, then again a change in agriculture, and building techniques may be needed. This should hardly be a challenge – mankind lives across the whole face of a world with endless variations of climate. We can always ask a neighbour. Where then were those questions at COP26?

There may be positive effects too, but it may be mankind’s ingenuity which finds them. Why in the Roman Empire, when the climate was warmer than now, was all North Africa’s coastland a garden for growing wheat and barley for the empire?  Or was it (as I have heard asserted by an agricultural botanist) that this monoculture denuded the soil and created the desert: mankind’s destroying hand. Or maybe the warming climate heralds the return of the endless cornfields? That is a worthy job for science to examine.

The greatest practical step forward at COP26, if it can be made to stick, is an agreement against deforestation. That is not something which we would have to wait 200 years to feel the benefit of: it is here and now.  Mankind can and does change the climate locally, and hewing down the trees is the most devastating way we do. Deserts have spread where trees once stood, coast have been washed into the sea, and where monsoon rains are no longer swallowed up by eager tree roots, floods plunged down, scouring all before them, destroying villages and farms over thousands of square miles.

There is no doubt that mankind changes the environment and the climate. The causes of short-term destruction must be dealt with. Slow, long-term changes might or might not be halted in two hundred years or so, but in that time each community must learn and adapt.

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Paterson and Liberty

What can you say when all sides call upon principles which are unprincipled and decry dishonesty dishonestly? It looks terrible. Something is, certainly.

Fiat justicia ruat caelum said Jacob Rees-Mogg with approval, but knowing as he did so the injustice hidden behind the phrase. He spoke as if telling the Commons “I come to bury Owen Paterson not to praise him”

“………… The noble Commissioner
Hath told you Owen was corrupted:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Owen answer’d it”

Like Antony at Caesar’s funeral, we know what he meant, and Jacob Rees-Mogg does not disappoint.

Classicists may know the story which gave us the phrase Fiat justicia ruat caelum (‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’). Lord Denning adopted the motto Fiat Justicia when he was granted a coat of arms, but wrote later that he would not have had he know the story. Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso sentenced a man to death for murder, but before the sentence was carried out the alleged victim turned up alive and well. The executioner brought the ‘victim’ to show the judge all was resolved. Piso however would not have it: the condemned man was still to be executed because he had been sentenced; the executioner was to be executed for failing to do his duty, and even the alleged victim was to be beheaded, for causing the death of two innocent men. ‘Let justice be done though the heavens fall’ – this sort of idiot legalism, the essence of how the Middle Ages worked, still has a purchase on administrators. It saves applying actual thought.

There is now a vast rumpus over the Owen Paterson case, but all are aware that if the Commissioner’s recommendation had been that Paterson be suspended for five working days, or nine, he would have grumbled over the injustice but taken it. Just ten working days is the trigger for expelling a member from the House and ending forever his political career, so because the Commissioner said 30 days, rebellion broke out and Commissioner’s very position is in peril. All this she could have avoided.

This blog carried an article last week about the iniquities of the Recall procedure being triggered in this way – quite coincidentally, by the way; it was written before the Owen Paterson affair became known. It is now very relevant.

I cannot say whether Owen Paterson has done anything wrong. In the eyes of the public and his constituents he is condemned as corrupt and will be unable to stand again for election. His career is over.

If it is a matter of enforcing blind principles, then it would be irrelevant whether Owen Paterson has actually done anything wrong, and irrelevant whether, as he claims, the Commissioner refused to listen to his evidence. Just the same way, one may say that principle demanded that the executioner carry our Piso’s order in spite of its being a nonsense. The principle is there for a purpose and if procedures have erred then principle should demand a pause.

The conclusions reached by the Committee are extraordinary, in that they condemn Mr Paterson even though they find Mr Paterson and the companies employing him had no financial benefit from his actions, that his actions were good and valuable to the public, and that his breach of the rules can only be interpreted by a fine legal reading of the texts of a poorly written standard. They are free to condemn him in those circumstances for a breach; however  recommending what is effectively an expulsion from the House and the end of his career, with the label of ‘corruption’ hanging over him, is ludicrous, disgraceful.

There is a very dark side too, of which all involved were very well aware. Mrs Paterson got caught up in this investigation, and saw the bile building higher and higher on the web, which she looked at secretly in dread. Mrs Paterson was frantic with worry, with guilt over what she felt she had caused, though she need not have been, and she took her own life. Grievously hath Owen answer’d it.

Let us take another look at the procedures.  There are three levels intended to be a protection:

  • first the Commissioner investigates the matter;
  • then the Committee on Standards reads her work to check she has not exceeded what is proper, or misunderstood things;
  • then it goes to the House of Commons to move a decision on the latter’s recommendations.

Each of these is safety net.  If it comes to be understood that each stage must simply rubber-stamp the recommendation of the previous layer, then the procedures are dead:  they just hand all power to the Commissioner alone.  The protest in the Commons after yesterday’s vote has claimed that principle demands that Paterson be punished as the Commissioner recommended without variation: that is not principle though – it defies principle.

I would hope that all the circumstances can be brought into the light, and Mr Paterson’s actions be considered for the reality not the rhetoric. The mothers of babies of Ulster whose lives were saved by his diligence for which he has been condemned may have something to say.

In the meantime there is talk of a reverse-ferret on this, that the adjourned disciplinary action will now proceed – and if the motion this time is for a three-month suspension and a reprimand, all well and good. Let us then, when the heat is off, hear more about the actual events.

Parliament can also repeal the deadly paragraph of the Recall of MPs Act, and leave that sanction only for those condemned by a court of law with evidence and a jury.

Postscript

Well that was quick: within an hour of the above being posted, Owen Paterson announced that he will take the Chiltern Hundreds. That is yet another by-election to come then.

He was left with little choice. He has an opportunity perhaps to put the record straight, though the news cycle will have moved on and no one will be listening until he publishes his memoirs. An investigation into what happened, and what is right and wrong to be done in the circumstances he faced, but do not expect it to be anything exciting.

There is charity work too, for the foundation he created in memory of his late wife, and the best redemption may be in this and in any future public service he can provide, and in the smiling faces of the babies whose lives his condemned intervention saved.

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No-escape Budget

Let the commentators maul it first, then settle down and see what can be rescued. Even so – tax; more tax. What we need for the economy to recover is a Conservative government, after 11 years of whatever we have had.

Is that cynical? Perhaps. Most of the Government’s actions have been Conservative, and allowed enterprise, but the tax burden is a brake on enterprise. It is not just hindering mathematically determined economic growth, but hindering investment in developing innovative techniques which will reduce commercial costs, leading to a reduction of domestic prices. Increasing household income boosts spending, and so growth again. Until the tax burden comes down though, we are just ticking along, with no  development and no end in sight.

There is no escape either as we cannot see a way to vote a tax-cutting Parliament into power.

All that said, there is nothing actually wrong with any of Rishi Sunak’s announcements.  It is the context which is dangerous. There is nothing wrong with budget responsibility rules – even Gordon Brown had those, which he abandoned as soon as he moved next door to Number 10. There is nothing wrong with spending on strategic projects either, and if the usual waste and corrupt mismanagement could be factored out then each of those projects would be a worthy project for the spending in question – if that were all the spending.

Projects end, and budgets end. If government largesse moves from the south to the north, to provide Bury and Barrhead with the infrastructure that the South-East takes for granted, very well and good – as long as it is spending moving north, not duplicated in the north while still being splashed out on overfed areas in the south.

The 0.7% to be sent on overseas aid frustrates many, as waste doing no good. However if we are to take Rishi Sunak at his word, then capital spending should go on creating capital assets – instead of handing money away to ill-disciplined countries’ treasuries, it can be used to acquire assets for mutual benefit. When the Chinese government hands out its billions it is to build ports and railways, either as a secured loan or to acquire the assets, which the Chinese state continues to own and control. That is where the aid should go: acquiring assets to promote trade on true principle, and which can later be sold to investors.

There is plenty of scope for reductions in spending and borrowing outside those areas newly announced: there are no longer millions of pounds of ordnance being exploded all over Afghanistan, there are no furlough subsidy payments, no tributes paid to the coffers of Brussels, and in fact capital payments should be coming back out of the European Investment Bank capital. These savings must not be seen as free money ready to be spent again; they are savings the taxpayer should enjoy, repaying debt and cutting tax, for everyone.

The civil service remains bloated and could be cut by half or more without anyone much noticing the difference in service provided, yet it is still recruiting (and still producing pointless reports which prove the redundancies in the ranks).

All this can be done to stem the waste without troubling a penny of those expansive pledges of this week.

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The silence; the shock

There are no adequate words for such a deed. A family weeps, a community weeps. That someone should strike in such a way against a husband and father, against the community and against democracy itself: it is not who we are.

Back in the different world that was 1983, Margaret Thatcher’s future was in the balance – the catastrophic economic conditions of her first years in office were not forgiven by many, but the J-curve had been passed, the economy was beginning to soar, and the euphoria of the Falklands victory was glowing in a newly confident nation, but still a nation with problems. The General Election held the future of the nation in balance, and no one knew what would happen.  Then as the first results came in, it was Basildon, working-class Basildon, and they elected a Conservative, which signalled the landslide that was coming. The harbinger of that landslide, Basildon’s fresh-faced young, smiling MP, was David Amess. He became a symbol of that night and of the new breed of Conservatives.

A face of the confident 1980s, David Amess served in Parliament long past that decade, never being appointed to ministerial office, being too much the backbencher, principled, keeping governments in line and speaking as a Member of Parliament should but as few do. He drew praise from all who knew him, frustration from his opponents, and worked hard, very hard, for all the causes, local and national, he turned his hand to.

That he should be struck down like this, in the course of his service, is too unspeakable. Ours is not  land where this can happen – but the wounds from the murder of Jo Cox six years ago are still raw, and Stephen Timms still bears the scars of an attempted murder that echoes yesterday’s. These murders and that attack were an attack upon democracy, utterly alien to all our nation has stood for. Since the creation of the United Kingdom, only nine MPs have been murdered in office: one yesterday, for motives we can guess, one five years ago by a nationalist, one two hundred years before by a mad bankrupt, and six by Irish nationalists. It is rare, very rare, and still too common.

Perhaps there is no way to predict when a solipsistic mania will seize a man and drive him to murder. One thing is certain – if it ever happens again, it must never cease to be less than utter outrage.

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