Gale's View from Westminster - August 2014
August. The silly season turns sour. Now does the summer of our discontent bring war, terror, death, division, disruption, disease, chaos and little joy. We are not All Going On A Summer Holiday. The inevitable demands for the recall of parliament but it is the first of September before parliament sits again to consider its impotence in the face of turmoil. All-pervasive gloom paralyses the satirist with writers' block. Hard to quarry even black humour from such a month but that has never yet stopped us trying.
“The lamps are going out all over Europe" said Sir Edward Grey as Foreign Secretary in 1914, "and we shall not see them lighted again in our lifetime". It was in commemoration of the start of the 'war to end all wars' that Britain extinguished its lights between ten and eleven o'clock on an August night. A modest but possibly a suitably futile recognition of the fragility of peace. By the middle of the month Russian convoys "stray" into Eastern Ukraine and more than a thousand Soviet - sorry, " Russian" - trained rebels are deployed against their compatriots in a move described with glorious understatement as ' dangerous and provocative'. Provocative, certainly, but dangerous to whom? Vlad "ras" Putin scarcely bothers to maintain the pretence that those are anything other than invading Russian Special Forces deployed to “liberate" their Ukrainian comrades from Western imperialism. Now where have we heard that line before? Hungary in 1956, Prague, Georgia and Moldova? With 'novorussian' tanks rolling through Eastern Ukraine it will be interesting to see whether a Europe dominated by a Germany dependent for its industry upon Russian gas supplies and a France that is still hell- bent on selling arms to the Kremlin will have the balls to do anything other than make whimpering noises. Russia is a member state of the Council of Europe, for heaven's sake. When, following the neo-soviet annexation of Crimea, some of us within the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE sought the removal of the Russian delegation we were told that we needed them “inside and talking". With the next plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly due in September we now wait to see whether appeasement is still the order of the day or whether what passes for the combined might of European Union 'external policy', The Council of Europe, NATO and Borat O'Bama's White House can come up with anything more threatening than the removal of privileges from a handful of Putin- supporting Oligarchs. I am not convinced that Frau Merkel calling for a ceasefire is likely to cut even as much ice as the anger and grief of Mothers of some Russian Special Forces, presumed killed in action while " "accidentally" straying into Ukraine and I doubt that Man David's description of Putin's armoured brigades' incursion into that country as "unacceptable" will shake the foundations of the Kremlin any more than will the proposed removal, from Russia, of the 2018 World Cup. With the battle of the key town of Mariupol looming and Putin reminding schoolchildren that the neo- Soviet Union still has nuclear weapons it will take more than a little sabre-rattling to put an end to the former KGB officer's territorial ambitions. If the 'Bosnia-isation ' of 'Republica Donetska' is proposed and agreed at some future location near Dayton Ohio or Leningrad or some other god-forsaken outpost then you can kiss the future of anything resembling democracy in the post-soviet republics goodbye for a generation and more.
If nuclear war does break out, however, it is more likely to be in the Middle East than in Eastern Europe. The point of a nuclear deterrent, as it is understood even in Red Square, is to deter the use of nuclear weapons in the certain knowledge that action will lead inexorably to reaction and mutual self-destruction. Those who are prepared to engage in acts of savagery that include genocide and the severing of an American journalist's head filmed for the benefit of 'social media ' publicity are unlikely to be put off their stride by anything remotely resembling reason. Whether the hapless Mr. Holland, the beleaguered 'President' of France is right or not, failure to implement concerted policies in Syria has clearly sown the wind and the whirlwind is now being reaped. It may well be the case that the sooner that those who are prepared to bury Christian and Yazidi women and children alive are sent to meet their inexhaustible supply of virgins in the hereafter the better but in the interim we have to recognise that we are facing something that has little or nothing to do with " faith" and everything to do with evil and international criminality and the power-crazed terrorism of a bunch of control-freaks on an industrial scale. The self-styled 'Islamist State of Iraq and the Levant '(Isil) is well funded and out of any form of sane and negotiable concern. The UK's new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, was right to describe ISIL as " a threat to civilisation" Add to that the Hamas-based rocketing of Israel, that organisation's deployment of women and children as human shields and a disproportionate Israeli response that may yet be indicted as war crimes and you have the perfect storm. It is almost a question of not which nuclear nation but when and who will push the red button first. Sir Edward Grey’s lamps could yet be going out all over the World.
Reverting, as a footnote, to the murder and decapitation of the American journalist, James Foley, there has been copious press analysis of who may have committed the atrocity, and where and when, and how “the net is closing in" on his killers. Setting aside the thought that the Daily Torygraph and The Bourgeoise Women’s Tabloid and other such chip-wrappings probably have no better access to sources of information than you or I it seems to me that if the net really were to be "closing in " on a gang of British jihadists known as " The Beatles" led by " John" then the less said and publicised about it the better. It would be good to think that one day the thugs that executed this crime might be brought to justice but unless and until that happens a period of speculation- free journalism might just be in order.
In the shadow of what might properly, for once, be described as an international crisis, our own parochial squabbles pale into insignificance. There have been domestic consequences of course. The Prime Minister has had to once again curtail his Cornish holiday and return to Downing Street to chair COBRA meetings, describing the situation as “a generational struggle against a poisonous ideology". The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Bernard Hogan- Howe, calls upon HMG to strip jihadists seeking to return to the United Kingdom of their passports. Mayor Boris, never one to miss an attractive passing bandwagon but who clearly has some legitimate interest in the matter as his city is a prime terrorist target, dances to the same tune. The former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, sacked in a classic case of shooting the messenger who brings bad news, points out that while those with dual nationality might be relieved of their UK citizenship there are serious legal impediments to rendering British-born subjects stateless. The Darling Bud of May nevertheless assures us that her Home Office is examining every possibility to tighten still further the powers available to combat terrorism up to and including the reinstatement Lord (Michael) Howard`s Control Orders, removed as part of the coalition deal at the behest of the Liberal Democrats. As we all know, though, we can prevent a thousand terrorist attacks but it only takes one to get through the net to cause mayhem. That's a thought that concentrates the mind when you remember the prominence of the building that we are privileged to work in and most of us are eternally grateful for the tireless efforts of those who seek to protect us. There will always be a tension, in a democratic society, between freedom and access on the one hand and security in the public and national interest on the other.
And so to domestic issues. Mayor Boris and Mr Farridge are on manoeuvres and The Speaker of the House of Commons is under siege. The Mayor of London is gravitating towards the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, due to be vacated at the general election by the excellent Sir John Randall, as his preferred option for a return to parliament and a not-the-Tory-leadership bid. There is also a current vacancy in Clacton, of which more in a moment, but Mr. Johnson might consider the UKIP challenge too hazardous to stake his reputation upon the possibility of losing a by- election. Who dares wins, Boris, and there are those now suggesting that the sibling Jo might prove to be the Johnson that finally makes it to the top of the greasy pole.
It has been an interesting month for the braying mantis of the European Parliament. For an elected representative who enjoys a salary, handsome pension package and not inconsiderable unchallenged expenses in return for representing British interests and constituents in Brussels, Mr. Farridge spends an inordinate amount of time on home soil promoting his own interests and those of his party. Following the charade of a “selection process" in the parliamentary seat of South Thanet, where my neighbour and dear friend Laura Sandys is, for entirely proper personal reasons, retiring from her position as the Conservative Member of Parliament, Farridge has been confirmed as the UKIP candidate for the 2015 general election. I have said before that I do not believe that the Leader of his Party, having been a large fish in a small birdbath, actually wishes to " do a Lucas" and, like the former MEP and Green Party Leader, disappear without much trace onto the back benches of the House of Commons to sink under a sea of constituency casework with which he is not at present troubled. Farridge talks grandly of winning many seats and "holding the balance of power" in a hung parliament. The reality is that he and his motley band of Tory rejects and fellow travellers could, at best, split the Conservative vote and deliver The Milipede as the occupant of Number 10 Downing Street. That, of course, would put the kibosh on any in/ out referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union and consequent ability to control the level of immigration that has risen to the top of the pile as a prominent issue of electoral concern.
Forget the moonshine about “taking votes from Labour". A Lord Ashcroft poll, which is usually accurate, indicates that UKIP will hit Tory marginal seats. Accusations of racism and xenophobia were highlighted recently by the newly- elected South East UKIP MEP Mrs Janice Atkinson, who as Janice Small was a failed Tory parliamentary candidate. Ms Atkinson described a Thai constituent as a "Ting-Tong from somewhere" within the hearing of a BBC microphone which did not appear to trouble the Farridge-voting former BNP supporters in certain coastal areas a great deal. That a UKIP youth meeting was treated to the suggestion that young members should emulate Adolph Hitler, who one Mr. Bill Etheridge apparently admires as a “magnetic and forceful public speaker" that "achieved a great deal" ought to be of at least some concern, however.
And so to Mr. Douglas Carswell, at the time of writing the former conservative Member of Parliament for Clacton in Essex. The Clacton constituency also embraces Harwich, which was formerly a Labour seat in its own right, and the sleepy and rather genteel seaside resort of Frinton on Sea off which, many years ago, the good ship Radio Caroline South, from which I once broadcast, was moored.
It is not possible for a Member of Parliament to resign. Aside from the slightly draconian exit- route of death the main option is to take “an office of profit under the Crown" which automatically bars a person from sitting in the House. Thus Mr. Carswell applied for and was granted "The Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds" and has left parliament to fight the resulting by- election in the UKIP cause. As one who believes in the democratic process I have always felt it appropriate to fight my battles within the system: if your arguments carry the day you win and if not then you accept he will of the majority and move on. What you do not do is let down those to whom you owe your position, sulk, take your bat and ball away or rat on your former colleagues. Unlike many commentators, including the press who regard this as a “good story", I do not find Mr. Carswell's actions either honourable or courageous. That this clandestine move caught the Conservative Party by surprise is beyond doubt. Not even Mr. Roger Lord, the UKIP candidate already selected to fight Mr. Carswell in 2015, benefitted from the courtesy of prior consultation with the Braying Mantis and understandably Mr. Lord is not best pleased. He has described the Farridge gleeful welcome of his new recruit as “a big mistake" and for those with long political memories believes it to be an opportunist coup on a par with that of the defection to UKIP of the former TV presenter and Labour MP Robert Kilroy Silk. It is suggested that Mr. Lord will not stand aside to make way for the Tory turncoat who now wishes to usurp his position in breach of his new party' rules . A person has to have been a member of UKIP for six months to be eligible to stand as a candidate and unless Mr. Carswell is even more duplicitous than we have been led to believe he does not meet that requirement. Only recently he was welcoming and endorsing David Cameron's commitment to an EU referendum following the election of a majority Conservative Government as the only way to achieve that desired result. We now understand that the former Tory backer Stuart Wheeler has been quietly whining (sic) and dining a handful of Conservative MPs in an effort to suborn them. Win or lose the Clacton by- election I doubt that Carswell will warrant more than a sad footnote in the parliamentary history of the twenty- first century.
Mr. Bercow, the current Speaker of the House of Commons, has, it seems, a tigress by the tail. Mr. Speaker Bercow heads and assembled the selection committee tasked with the duty of picking a successor to the retiring Clerk of the House, the physically and intellectually impressive Sir Robert Rogers. Rumour has it that Sir Robert had a falling out with Mr. Speaker Bercow and decided that he had other, better and happier things that he wished to do than to preside - such has the role of the Clerk changed - over the refurbishment of the lavatories ( well, the whole building to be fair) of the Palace of Westminster. Ordinarily the Clerk of the House role would have been handed on to another and experienced member of the team, in this case probably the equally impressive David Natzler. Speaker Bercow's committee, which unusually did not include the Chairman of Ways and Means, Senior Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, decided to go out to tender and selected the current Deputy Head of Parliamentary Services in Canberra, Australia, one Carol Mills. Most of us have not had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Mills and it would be quite wrong to malign the beleaguered woman but former Speaker and hugely respected Baroness, Betty Boothroyd, has suggested that she is likely be " completely out of her depth" in the £200 thousand a year job and the Clerk of the Australian Senate, Rosemary Laing, who presumably knows what she is talking about, says that Ms. Mills has " no real experience of parliamentary procedure" which might be a bit of a drawback in the job. Ordinarily the appointment would be approved by the Prime Minister and formally signed off by Her Maj but Sir Alan Beith, Chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee has called for the appointment to be halted and former Home Secretary Jack Straw, a lawyer, former Leader of the House of Commons Dame Margaret Beckett, and the Rt.Hon. Andrew Mitchell, former Secretary of State for Overseas Development have all called for the candidate to be subjected to a US-style selection hearing. Just to compound the difficulties David Natzler has instigated a case against Speaker Bercow on the grounds of 'gender discrimination'! Downing Street has indicated that “the appointment has not yet been formalised" which suggests that the Speaker's preferred choice faces rough water. Watch this space.
It has not been a great Summer Holiday for Sir Cliff Richard either. While relaxing in his second home in The Algarve he learned that in a full glare of BBC live coverage the South Yorkshire constabulary , whose Police and Crime Commissioner is one Sean Wright, a former Labour Councillor, had been busy raiding his home seeking evidence following allegations of an historical abuse. Sir Cliff had been made aware of the allegations in the past and had not deemed it appropriate to dignify them with comment. However, with a BBC helicopter hovering over his UK home following a tip- off from Mr. Plodthwaite, the ever- youthful singing knight found it necessary to issue an emphatic and forceful denial. Subsequently, Cliff returned voluntary to the UK to speak with Yorkshire's super-sleuths but in the meantime other questions were being asked. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, until recently the Government's most senior lawyer, considered South Yorkshire's handling of the matter to be " highly questionable" leading to an unseemly " who told who what and when" spat between the Salford Broadcasting Corporation and the Police, with the latter claiming, but unable to explain how, that the broadcaster had already got the story of the investigation and was bought off to "preserve the evidence" with a promise of prior notification of the raid! As a result the illustrious Lord (Tony) Hall will be dragged from the comfort of New Broadcasting House to join the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire, David Crompton, to face a Select Committee grilling. The committee may just not be minded to accept Lord Hall's assertion that the Corporation had “acted appropriately" in "protecting editorial independence". Sir Cliff, meanwhile, is back in the Algarve.
Not a good summer, either, for South Yorks' Police and Crime Commissioner, the aforementioned Ex- Councillor Sean Wright. Mr. Wright was Rotherham's Councillor with Responsibility for Children's Services for much of the time when, according to a devastating and excoriating report produced by Professor Alexis Jay, up to 1400 under-age girls were, over a sixteen-year period, being groomed and sexually abused and in some cases tortured by gangs of mainly Asian men. Professor Jay, in her own words, describes "failings of Leadership" on the part of local government and the police that, because of a desire not to be seen as "discriminatory" , led to complaints by young victims, parents and some social workers, going unheeded and unpunished.
Reading Rotherham's website, following publication of Professor Jay's report, a visitor from Mars might have been forgiven for believing that these "historic" accusations were all" in the past" and that all is well. All is not well. Those responsible, including senior Council staff, senior police officers and the Police and Crime Commissioner have to be held to account. They surely cannot continue to be allowed to hold public office?
The Nanny State, in the form of National Health England, believes that we should eschew the demon drink for two days in every week. It is not clear upon what authority this advice is given or how it squares with the “a glass of red wine is good for you" thesis but Matron knows best.
Royal Mail's attempt to "improve" its service (to shareholders, presumably) involves the scrapping of 'late collections' to require posties engaged in what are now late deliveries to collect mail from boxes in the course of their rounds.
And The Legacy has particular cause to be ungruntled with RM's philatelic services. Their stamp issue of eight Prime Ministers includes William Pitt the Younger, at the age of 24 in 1783, long before Rowland Hill's penny postage was a gleam in Queen Victoria' young eye in 1840. Also featured and pre-Rowland Hill is Charles Grey of 1832 Reform Act fame. Robert " Bobby" Peel, Gladstone, Churchill, Attlee, Wilson and Margaret Thatcher are all getting licked but there is no room in this collection for Mr. Blair. No stamp with a million-pound face value, perhaps?
Inheritance tax used to be paid on one in twenty estates. Thanks to rising house prices that figure will, by 2018, have fallen to one in ten. Given that homes are bought with earnings upon which tax has already been paid this is an issue that Chancellor George might do well, in an election year, to address.
Immigration judges have determined that a fifteen year old Ethiopian girl must be admitted to the United Kingdom on the grounds that, under Ethiopian law, she is married. Even by the standards of perverse decisions frequently perpetrated by the judiciary this seems to be, in the context of British law, a trifle eccentric.
Gardener's Question Time, the much- loved hoe-addicts' programme, has been branded as racist by an academic sociologist at the University of Westminster. It is, it seems, unacceptable to refer to “native and non-native species" in a manner that is apparently "feeding fascist fantasies".
The Chancellor's Number 11 cat, Freya, was run over by a taxi in Whitehall. On World Cat Day. Freya, who is something of a liability, escaped relatively unscathed from between the wheels but her remaining lives are diminishing at an alarming rate.
In a desperate endeavour to "keep up with the times" the Chief Guide, Gill Slocombe, has announced that her girls will be swapping their traditional uniforms for “fresh, young and versatile" hoodies and jeans. Is there a badge for dumbing down?
After a losing battle with large seabirds the St. Ives Council, in Cornwall, has given up trying to prevent herring gulls from ripping ice creams from the hands of unwary tourists saying “we will just have to learn to live with them". “They swoop to conquer".
Google vets are killing pets. So says the British Veterinary Association. The Vets' trade union is concerned that “Dr. Google" is giving advice that leads the layman to mis-diagnosis and inappropriate treatment, sometimes resulting in fatality.
One hump of cheese or two? In a move reminiscent of the wonderful "giraffe's milk" spoof broadcast from Paignton Zoo by Farming Today, a Dorset firm is producing "Godminster Cheese" made from camels' milk. And this time it’s not All Fools Day.
UK Industry now has its own flag. Made in Taiwan. Have they not heard of the wonderful Wales-based firm called Mr. Flag? Or is the principality deemed to be too "foreign” for English tastes?
A blow for French cuisine. Hard on the heels of a severe shortage of mussels from La Rochelle and the need to import fish to meet the demand for Moules Frites we are now told that the so-typically French escargots do not belong to France at all. Spanish cave-dwellers were eating snails ten thousand years ago.
The European Union Department of Meddlesome Affairs is demanding that the 'world's finest beer', so good that it is sold unlabelled, must henceforth carry details of the ingredients on the bottles. The Monks of St. Sixths Abbey who, with divine assistance, brew Westleferen ale, must be wondering which idiot, in the good Lord’s name, dreamed up this particular gem of eurocracy.
'Elf ' n safety strikes again. It's the bottom of the barrel for lucky dips. Shredded paper may cause a health hazard. Of course. Hospitals are overwhelmed with the treatment of summer-fete acquired disease arising from wallowing in tubs of bran.
The Liberal Democrat wing of the coalition wants to reduce the age at which sex education is enforced in schools from eleven to seven so that children can make “informed decisions". About precisely what?
And pity the poor triathlete who, having run the 86 miles from London to Dover, was about to commence the 21 mile swim across the Channel as part of his record-breaking attempt when he was challenged by Kent police. An over-zealous anti-immigration campaigner had assumed that he was an illegal immigrant trying to get ashore and reported John van Wisse to our eagle-eyed Border and Immigration team.
Chapman ' Harry' Pincher, spy catcher extraordinaire and doyen of the “black Lubianka", Fleet Street home of the old Daily Express, having scored his century, has made his last shorthand note.
At the age of 63 the star of Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning Vietnam, immortalised in Mork and Mindy, Robin Williams has shot his final scene.
The voice of Radio Two and Radio Five Live classified football results, the man whose intonations have excited and disappointed generations of football pools investors, James Alexander Gordon, has signed off for ever.
John Major has paid tribute on the passing, at the age of 81, to Albert Reynolds who, as Taoiseach of The Republic of Ireland was instrumental in orchestrating the start of the peace process.
Richard "Darling Dickie" Attenborough, film actor and director who starred in The Great Escape and picked up an Oscar for Gandhi in 1982 has called "cut" for the last time in his 91st year.
Or will this prove to be "valete"? Next month we shall know whether we are still a United Kingdom or whether Scotland under Alex Salmond has voted to quit the Union and go it alone at whatever cost to the economies of both sides of the argument and with the future of Scotland's new currency still undetermined. Alasdair Darling thrashed Salmond in the first of two televised (curiously in Scotland only) debates but in round two Salmond came out fighting and reduced a "no" vote predicted poll lead to just 6 points. Paraphrasing the Dog's Trust catchphrase “the vote is forever, not just for Hogmanay”,the argument for maintaining the Union is unassailable but will Braveheart rule the head? There could be the Mother of all financial hangovers if Scotland buys into Salmond and gets it wrong.