The purpose of these periodic posts is to collect the follies of those who rule over us as they flow past on Twitter and in the news, illustrated with some of the pictures which stand for a thousand words. If there is a theme to this one, it is that we in the UK have no right to criticise the antics of any other country, nor to claim that our devotion to justice and fairness is any greater than theirs. We have also normalised dishonesty in politics, and Tony Blair came back and showed us, like Matilda in Belloc’s poem, that no-one will take any notice of you, however right you are this time, once you are tainted with a history of dishonesty.
MATILDA told such Dreadful Lies,
It made one Gasp and Stretch one’s Eyes;
We had three terms of gasping and stretching our eyes at Tony Blair. As someone said during his time as Prime Minister, if Blair told you the time, you would at once ring the Speaking Clock to check it. However right and eloquent Blair is now, he can’t stop Matilda May from playing with the matches. More on this below. [Cartoon by Brookes in The Times]
Let start, though, with something agreeable. A meme arose on 14 February with the hashtag #LawValentines. Many of the tweets would be incomprehensible to anyone not versed in the law and in recent legal developments. The ever-reliable Sean Jones QC gave us this, for example:
…which means nothing to those unaware that the attributes set out in the last line formed the basis of an attack on the senior judiciary by the Daily Mail when the government lost the Brexit Article 50 appeal. Reporters were ordered to “Go out and dig the dirt on the Judges” and this was the best they could come up with for one of them.
A more conventional legal Valentine played it safe:
My own contribution was this:
MPs of all parties sell us down the Brexit river
Theresa May beat off any prospect of Parliament having a say on the Brexit terms, thanks in part to Jeremy Corbyn, who imposed a three-line whip requiring Labour MPs to support the government. Some brave souls rebelled. We all felt terribly sorry for Diane Abbott, whose sudden (and brief) migraine prevented her obeying her leader’s command. More on Abbott below.
As Corbyn sold us down the river, I renewed my attempt to find a cartoon which appeared in the Times just before the referendum tug-of-war, showing Cameron and others pulling vigorously on the Remain end of the rope while Corbyn twiddled with the rope’s end. I found it and posted it on Twitter.
“Great minds?” said a fellow Tweeter. It turned out that he too had just published this picture. Great minds, indeed or, rather a great cartoonist in Morland that two of us should separately recall an apposite cartoon from eight months ago.
So May is free to do as she wishes, leaving Parliament to choose between whatever she brings back from her discussions and no agreement at all. Those who fought for Brexit to “win back control” meekly surrendered all control to a woman who, between you and me, appears to have not the first idea what she is up against, aided by Tweedledum Davis, Tweedledee Johnson and the other one. [Brookes again]
We reached the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. What event marked Britain’s fall from the world stage?, someone asked. Was it Singapore, Suez or Brexit? At least the first two were mistakes – dreadful, culpable mistakes – but not a deliberate election to hurl ourselves from prosperity and power to economic ruin.
[I have tried without success to find who did this. If you know, please drop me a line]
Picking a target for the right reasons
David Davis, boorish Minister for Fucking our Future, tried to kiss Diane Abbott after the Article 50 vote, no doubt to soothe away her migraine. He was rebuffed in strong terms and afterwards made some comment indicative of disdain for Abbott’s appearance. That opened (or re-opened, because it recurs often) a discussion about why everyone is horrid about Diane Abbott – it must, some say, be because she is black and a woman. It is certainly right to say that people who are black or female, never mind both, attract unwarranted abuse, Abbott more than most (see this Guardian interview with her and be appalled). Don’t be inhibited from disliking Abbott on other grounds, however.
There’s less to IDS than his brain
Attention paid to the “wrong” attributes detracts from valid criticism on more important grounds. I am as guilty of this as anyone. Take Iain Duncan Smith, for example. It is easy to assert that IDS is a bit thick – it is his most obvious characteristic, as obvious as Diane Abbott’s colour and gender, and one refers to “the stupid Iain Duncan Smith” almost automatically. The problem is that this takes the eye off the man’s real defects – lying about statistics while at the DWP, being “disingenuous” about the rise in food bank use, and setting out deliberately (and only too successfully) to make it harder for sick and disabled people to claim benefits. He also lent his name to the dishonest Brexit campaign and specifically to the “£350m for the NHS” lie emblazoned on the Brexit bus. IDS is a thoroughly nasty little man; his stupidity is the least of it.
Blair shouts “Fire!”
Who else can we think of whose standout fault obscures a host of others? I remember thinking as Tony Blair lied to bring us into Iraq that this would bury all his other many defects. Blair climbed from his casket this week to make a speech urging us to rise up against Brexit. The Spectator published the speech itself here, and there is an excellent article on it by Ian Dunt here.
It sticks in the throat to say it, but Blair is not only right, but is the only man with the analytical skills to break open the components of the Brexit disaster, the eloquence to articulate them, and the status to be heard.
A storm erupted. Blair is a hate figure to both the far left and the far right and both leapt to the attack – see the comments below the Spectator article for example. Their reaction is largely one of fear – both are afraid of a move to the centre which will emasculate the support of both of them, leaving them as twitching, raging minorities at the outer edges.
Labour poured vitriol on the man who led Labour to three election victories, and Corbyn seemed to think that Blair’s intervention would be unhelpful to Labour in the forthcoming Stoke by-election; that Corbyn himself and Labour’s unpleasant and misogynist candidate might be to blame didn’t seem to cross his mind – but then so little seems to cross Corbyn’s mind. The deeply stupid Iain Duncan Smith (there I go again) was wheeled out to sneer from the right. Dishonest careerist Boris Johnson gave us the benefit of his opinion.
Hilaire Belloc takes up the story
That Night a Fire did break out–
You should have heard Matilda Shout!
You should have heard her Scream and Bawl,
And throw the window up and call
To People passing in the Street–
(The rapidly increasing Heat
Encouraging her to obtain
Their confidence) — but all in vain!
For every time she shouted ‘Fire!’
They only answered ‘Little Liar!’
Many doubters and Blair-haters quietly shifted their views, however, quietly applauding Blair the articulator without necessarily relaxing their loathing of Blair the man. Sure, there were those who claimed to have become pro-Brexit not because of what Blair said but because it was Blair who said it – precisely the reason why Blair (showing a degree of self-awareness quite missing from his years in power) kept out of the Referendum campaign.
The normalisation of political lying
My dislike of Blair stems from the way he normalised dishonesty in politics – before Blair, it was still a shameful thing for a politician to be caught lying; after him it became the norm. Leaving aside the always-shameless Nigel Farage, real politicians – senior people with responsible positions like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith and Gisela Stuart – felt unconstrained by the truth as they campaigned for Brexit, and were uninhibited in disowning the lies once they had achieved their objective. That is Blair’s legacy. That does not make him wrong now.
Dishonesty lies in more than mere untruths – Theresa May and domestic violence
A different type of dishonesty emerged from Theresa May’s words about domestic violence. She wanted, she said, to “transform the way we think about and tackle domestic violence and abuse”. Critics were quick to point out that the government had deliberately made life very much worse for victims of domestic violence by closing shelters and by cuts to the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and to legal aid.
It is unfair, you may protest, to bracket that nice vicar’s daughter with egregious liars like Farage, Johnson, Blair, IDS and (coming up next) UKIP’s Paul Nuttall. I think it is fair; if you make a big thing about ending domestic violence while closing shelters and cutting legal aid you are as dishonest as the rest of them.
UKIP’s wing nut
UKIP leader Paul Nuttall also faced challenges to his honesty, not least through his claims to have been a professional footballer and to have lost a close friend while at Hillsborough. Twitter did its stuff again:
…and more subtly, but much more damningly:
The JAC disorganises a quiz
Hundreds of barristers and solicitors logged on to an online form set up by the Judicial Appointments Commission as a preliminary test of their suitability to be a Recorder. A large number of voluble and articulate people took to Twitter as the system failed, in some cases falling over just as they reached the last question. The JAC is sponsored by the Ministry of Justice, which is rushing to deliver a complex online courts system. If the MOJ can’t organise a simple online quiz, what hope have they delivering anything really complicated? We know the answer to that question.
When did the MOJ ever launch an initiative without thoroughly testing it, thinking through the implications, and assessing the risk of failure? Quite.
Danger on the streets
From an outfit which never bothers to assess risk to one which sees danger on every street – or at least the street name. The Local Government Association is, I think, the sort of place you work in if you have failed even in the intellectually undemanding world of local councils. I have always imagined that you get “promoted” to the LGA to keep you away from anything which matters. The LGA recommended that councils should not name streets after individuals because of the possibility that they might one day be found to be paedophiles or be otherwise linked to “inappropriate activities”. People like their streets to be named after local heroes and it is one of the perks of being a councillor that there might one day be a “Shufflebottom Close” in recognition of your years of service. Some dim pen-pusher at the LGA has too much time on his or her hands, methinks.
Meanwhile, the Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police says he is believes “120%” in allegations against the former Prime Minister, the long-dead Ted Heath. I am 120% convinced the Chief Constable is a prat, but I wouldn’t waste resources seeking to prove that.
And talking of prats…
Have you nothing on Liz Truss?, I hear you ask. I thought I’d give you a rest. There was that speech to the new QCs (“written by a civil servant” said someone who heard it) which they were all too polite to talk about, some more vacuous words about prisons which did everything except actually engage with the problem, and her assertion that the possible revocation of an Article 50 notification is a political rather than a legal matter.
Given some of the other things going on in the world at the moment, I wonder if Truss has any idea of the implications of a ministerial assertion that the interpretation of statutes is a matter for politicians rather than lawyers.