January. “Ten years to save the planet”. Megxit, Brexit, the trials of Harvey Weinstein and the tribulations of The Tramp. Anne Sacoolas remains a fugitive from British justice, “justice “in Cyprus finds a young rape victim guilty of wasting police time, cross-channel migration attempts reach nearly two thousand for the past year and forty-three people try the night journey in rubber dinghies on New Year`s Eve. The Labour leadership contest to replace Red Jerry rolls onwards towards the almost inevitable car-crash result, The Prime Minister ambles back from his winter holiday to review the consequences of the drone strike that The Commander in Chief ordered on a car carrying the Iranian General Quassam Soleiman in Baghdad, Iran denies shooting down a Ukrainian passenger aircraft on the outskirts of Tehran and then admits responsibility for the lethal `accident`. The Withdrawal Agreement is signed in Brussels and then shipped to London for counter-signature and the UK is allowed to keep a photocopy of the original document which apparently has to be held by the European Commission. The planned High Speed 2 North-South railway line will, we are told, require the uprooting of a thousand ancient woodlands but presumably that`s a small price to play if proposals to move Conservative Campaign Headquarters or the House of Lords to the North of England ever look like being realised or if the Cabinet ever wants to make another futile gesture and sits in Sunderland again .A financial rescue package for the beleaguered low-cost carrier Flybe generates squeals of protest from other airlines, The Bongs of Big Ben chimed in the New Year but remain silent for `Brexit night`, The impeachment of The Tramp kicks off in the US Senate while the man himself is thousands of miles away at the World Economic Forum in Davos denying climate change and beating up the Swedish never-at-school girl Greta Thunberg. Vlad `The Impaler` Putin takes a step closer to lifetime dictatorship as the Russian government resigns to pave the way for `constitutional changes`. Ex-Commons Speaker Bercow could become the first holder of that office to be denied a peerage in the two hundred and thirty-year history of the role and the month ends with the spread of the Coronavirus epidemic from the city of Wuhan in China. It is not yet officially a pandemic but watch this space.
January (Part One) is dominated by what is now known as “Megxit”. Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, aka “Harry and Meghan”, returned after the turn of the year from what appears to have been an idyllic holiday in Canada. The clue that `something was up` might, with hindsight, have been blindingly obvious. Their infant son, Archie, was left behind in North America while Mum and Dad flew home, suggesting that one or both of the Royals might just not be in the UK for long. They`d only been back a couple of days when the Duke took the pin out of the grenade and lobbed it smartly towards Buckingham Palace. `We quit` was, basically, the thrust of the statement issued by Team Sussex and Her Maj was not best pleased to learn about this when she turned on her telly to watch the evening news. No courtesy, no consultation with Granny, just “we`re handing in the keys and pushing off back to the Colonies.”. There was a lot of flowery guff about `balancing time between North America and the United Kingdom` and ` duty to the Queen, to the Commonwealth and to our patronages` but the underlying message was still pretty clear. “We`ve had enough of being Royal and we want the space to make our own way in life”.
Not surprisingly Her Majesty`s disloyal media, who possibly bear some responsibility for the young couple`s decision, went into overdrive. The Bourgouise Women`s Tabloid led the charge, shredding hectares of rainforests to generate enough newsprint to churn out zillions of pages of the `in-depth` opinions of `royal watchers` backed up by every snap that the paparazzi could produce. One tree would have been one too many to sacrifice for this interminable drivel but day after day we were practically at the sports pages before any other news was allowed to intrude upon the “Megfest”.
I have much sympathy with Harry and Meghan. I think that they handled it appallingly and that it was excruciatingly rude of them not to have forewarned Her Maj who, amongst other things, has gone out of her way to try to make Meghan feel at home and is also very fond of her grandsons. On the other hand, it is highly likely that had they not presented `The Firm` with a fait accompli then the Buck House machine would have ground them down and persuaded them to reverse the decision that they had, presumably, spent six weeks in Canada deliberating over before returning to press the nuclear button.
It`s also worth remembering that a young Prince Harry watched his Mother being hounded into a premature grave at the hands of the vermin of the press pack and you can make a pretty strong case for understanding why he would not wish to see his bride and his own child dragged down the same blaze of constant publicity into misery. It`s easy to say that “if you can`t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” (which is pretty much what the Sussexes are trying to do) and to say high-handedly that they are `rich spoiled and privileged brats who ought to be grateful for what they`ve got” but there’s another side to this. Meghan Markle may or may not have known what she was getting into when she wooed and won her Prince Charming but Harry had no such choice. Those of us who seek public office, for example, stick our heads above the parapet to be shot at willingly. We can blame nobody. While we may not like the increasingly vitriolic attacks via not only the printed press but now by social media upon our wives, our children, our dogs and cats and even ourselves nobody holds a gun to our heads and says” you`ve got to stand for election”. The Royal Family have no say in the matter. They are born into it and they are lumbered with it. The core team of `The Firm`, headed and exemplified by the Queen and backed up by the nonagenarian Duke of Edinburgh, are bred into service and dedication to a task that, frankly, most of us would not want. Collectively, they are worth millions to the economy of our Country in terms of invisible exports and they have provided over generations a rock and a stability that is beyond price as an asset to the nation. The more minor royals, however, are between a rock and a hard place: no likely duty of succession and yet no real opportunity to forge a path in life other that by engaging in interminable `good works`. Not surprisingly, those developed democracies who do not have a Monarch try invariably, desperately and unsuccessfully to invent one through an elected Head of State. Does anyone seriously believe that the line of the Dauphin Macron, or the German Chancellor, or The Kennedys or the Bush family or any other cheap cardboard replica can hold a candle to the real thing? But I digress!
Back in Sandringham, in East Anglia, and while Meghan has rejoined her son Archie on Vancouver Island in Canada, the clan gathers. Her Maj has dictated that she wants the crisis sorted and the deal struck `within days` and so it shall be. The `Sandringham Summit` is attended by The Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry. In her official statement Her Maj says that she “would have preferred Harry and Meghan to stay as full time royals” but after a “very constructive” discussion agrees to a transition period to be spent between the UK and Canada and avers that “my family” are “entirely supportive” of the decisions taken. It`s easy to forget that this is a private and domestic matter as well as a very public and national issue. Harry and Meghan will, the Queen says,” always remain much-loved members of my family” Steps will clearly have to be taken to protect the Royal Brand from commercial exploitation, hence the removal of the “HRH” titles from the couple, and there remain big issues around how, precisely, they will be able to earn a living and who will pay for the inevitable security guard that will still have to haunt them in perpetuity. Money paid out of the public purse for the refurbishment of their UK home, Frognall Cottage on the Windsor estate, will be repaid and that property will be rented by them as a UK base. While Harry`s honorary military roles, including his Captaincy of the Royal Marines, will be terminated his involvement in the Invictus Games, very much his own project, will continue and he clearly intends to be heavily involved in the next games in Dusseldorf in 2022 and the couple will be invited, as `Harry the Duke of Sussex and Meghan the Duchess of Sussex”, to Royal weddings, the Cenotaph and other family occasions. On January 22nd, with a police guard, Prince Harry left the United Kingdom for Canada to arrive, ironically, to the very kind of media frenzy that they have been trying to avoid. Look now, however, and at least here in the United Kingdom, you will find scarcely a column inch devoted to The Sussexes. Just perhaps they may be left in the peace that they wish to be craving for although for how long a couple so used to the limelight will be able to live without the oxygen of celebrity and publicity only time will tell.
January (Part Two) has been devoted to Brexit And All That. Before Christmas, and in my exalted role as Temporary Chairman of Ways and Means (Senior Deputy Speaker) afforded to me while the full-time occupants of The Chair were elected, I was privileged to be allowed to announce to the Commons and, via the cathode ray tube, to the nation, the result of the historic vote on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. We resumed work on this measure, as a Committee of the Whole House, when the Commons sat again at the beginning of the year. The Third Reading was carried with a Government majority of 320/231 (99) and with that behind us the bill went off to the House of Lords where changes, including the `Dubs Amendment` proposed by Lord (Alf) Dubs and designed to protect migrant children, were proposed. The government in fact suffered two defeats on Lords amendments which were then reversed when the bill returned to the Commons. Having a majority in the Commons does help!
With the Royal Assent (La Reine Le Veult whether she actually likes it or not) and the European Parliament`s approval the Withdrawal documents were signed in Brussels by the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council as `friends and sovereign equals`, sent by Eurostar to London, signed `historically` by the Prime Minister and shipped back to Brussels again for safe keeping. The originals of all European documents are, it seems, kept in Brussels. So after three and a half years of negotiation and much grief all we are left with is not even a duplicate but a measly photocopy for our files. Well, that and some clear indications that while January 31st may mark `The end of the beginning` all will not be plain sailing from here on in. Leaving the EU legally is, as I keep trying to remind people, the start of eleven months of negotiation at the end of which we will exit the transition period with either a cobbled together deal of some kind or we will crash out of the EU on WTO terms yet to be agreed and with no deal at all.
Mayor Boris has indicated that he would settle for a `Canada Plus` deal of the kind earlier rejected, or an `Australia Plus` deal based on an agreement that has yet to be finalised. What is certain is that one way or another we leave, finally, on December 31st 2020 because that is what the Withdrawal Act says that we must do and there is no numerical opposition in Parliament to reverse that position or to extend the deadline. In the meantime, M. Barnier, if you remember him, has said that there will be no zero quotas or zero tariffs without strict continued adherence to EU standards and the current Prime Minister of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, wants a trade-off between fishing rights and financial services. At present the EU is calling for fishing rights in our waters over a further 25 years while we are offering just a one-year grace period, which is rather a big gap to bridge. In retaliation we are now speaking of a 30% tariff on imported cheeses and a 10% tariff on German cars. So that`s got off to a good start then.
January 31st dawned with the departure of our MEPs from the European Parliament for the final time, the President of the Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen, asserting that “we will always love you and we will never be far” and the Farridge leaving in characteristically boorish and uncouth `bloody foreigners` style. Dignity is not his strongest suit. Suzy and I spent most of the day travelling back from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe the work of which, in Strasbourg, of course continues and Suzy picked up an “I crossed the Channel on 31st January; Two people, one way” badge that P&O ferries were dishing out as souvenirs. If the White Cliffs looked particularly good from the Pride of Burgundy then that was probably because it meant that were only about half an hour away from home and our dogs.
Much has been made of the fact that Big Ben was not allowed to strike eleven to mark our departure from the EU on Brexit Eve. The practical reality of this is that the Clocktower which houses the clock and bells is undergoing total renovation and following New Year’s Eve the floor of the bell chamber, which also supports the striking mechanism and is rotten, was removed. It is estimated that to have reinstated the mechanism on a temporary basis would not only have delayed the works programme but would have cost about half a million pounds which is a hell of a lot of boodle per bong. Boris `Jingo` Johnson launched a crowdfunding `bung a bob for Big Ben` fundraiser which ended in farce with the money dribbling in and the practicalities of the exercise dictating reality. Inevitably ` The Commons Authorities` were blamed for obstruction but the truth is rather more mundane. Given that hardly anyone would have been within earshot of the Bongs any way it is hard to see why someone did not stick a tape recorder and four damn great amplifiers up in the bell chamber and just turn the switch on when the time arrived. Jingo`s Bong! fundraiser did, however, generate £272,770 which will be given to the service charity Help for Heroes so some good, at least, came of the appeal.
There is, though, one final irony that seems to have been lost upon most people including Arch-Bongers Iain Duncan Smith and Mark Francois. Why only eleven bongs and not twelve? Because of course eleven is midnight in Europe, which is the witching hour, and they were therefore, in reality, calling for us to march in time with Europe!
On the other side of the Atlantic it has been an eventful month for the Commander in Chief who tried, and might have succeeded, to start World War Three by ordering a drone strike on one of the World`s most wanted men, the Iraniaian General Quassam Solmeini, head of the infamous Iranian Quds Force. The General was on a trouble-making mission to Iraq when his convoy was taken out while leaving Baghdad Airport. This was inevitably going to provoke an immediate short-term retaliation which it did in the form of a few rockets designed to hit the periphery of some American bases
Notwithstanding the inevitable demand for a recall of Parliament (a recall takes two days and we were due to be back on the third day anyway) our Prime Minister decided to finish his winter sunshine break with his girlfriend in Mustique and was, of course, heavily criticised for so doing. On this occasion I am on Jingo`s side. Given modern communications it is possible to run a Country and to take decisions and give orders from virtually anywhere in the world and I cannot see what possible benefit to the security of the nation there was to be gained by dragging the Prime Minister back to engage in what would then have been criticised for shroud-waving or grandstanding. Instead he returned at the end of his break to express support for The Tramp but also to urge restraint which, under the circumstances, was the right call.
Of greater concern was the shooting down of Ukraine Airlines Flight PS752, a Boing 737-800, shortly after it had taken off from Tehran airport. This, aside from the human tragedy and loss of life, was also a spectacular own goal. The plane was carrying a significant number of Iranian citizens, many returning from holidays or a wedding in Iran to Canada, as well as four Britons who were returning home. In passing, and in clear breach of diplomatic convention Our Man In Iran, Rob Macaire, was seized and held in detention for two hours before being released `without charge`. The Ayatollah`s regime was swift to deny responsibility but video footage backed up by intelligence and other information swiftly revealed that the cause of the crash was not `pilot` error or somesuch but a surface-to-air missile fired from an Iranian defence battery. Tehran was forced to admit `human error` as the cause of the missile attack and no doubt the unfortunate human who gave the order will have been left hanging from the jib of a crane as is the charming local method of execution.
The philistine Tramp, meanwhile, is escalating the rhetoric and threatening to `bomb heritage sites` in Iran if any US citizens are harmed in retaliation. This is a useful distraction, of course, for a President who has lost the first part of the impeachment process in the House of Representatives and whose trial in the Senate is about to commence. Next stop Davos. The President, clearly determined to boost his climate change denial credentials, swept into the Swiss Alps for the World Economic Forum in a fleet of Chinook Helicopters and gas-guzzling armoured limousines. The sole purpose of this exercise, apart from putting some distance between himself and the start of the Senate hearings in Washington, appears to have been to accuse a Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, of being a `prophet of doom`. It is true that Ms, Thunberg does not present as a whole bundle of laughs and understandably some find the girl who appears to be on a serial truancy a trifle tiresome but if it`s a choice between her painful truths and The Tramp`s inability to grasp facts when they sock him in his piggy eyes then it`s no contest and Ms. Thunberg wins hands down.
The US Secretary of State, one Steven Mnuchin, has got the hump because the United Kingdom wants American Tech near-monopolies to pay due tax on the profits that they generate from Britain. The Munchkin threatens tariffs on UK exports to the States if the Treasury persists in trying to get the Tech Cos to pay their way but the Tramp is still effusive over the possibilities of “a great trade deal”. By which, presumably, he means screwing the British and opening our doors to agricultural products produced under conditions that would never be allowed in the United Kingdom or even in a Europe that already has lower standards than our own. The President is reported, though, to have had harsh words with Jingo over the Government`s proposals to allow the Chinese Spy Corporation, sorry, “technology company”, to have limited access to the roll-out of 5G technology in Britain. And Mike Pompeo has asked the Government to “re-look” the Huawei decision. In this, at least, they have the support of GCHQ who have their own reservations about letting the fox into the chicken coop.
The other bone of contention between the UK and our American Colonies is the refusal, on behalf of the US Government, to allow Mrs Anne Sacoolas to be returned to Britain to face trial. Ms Sacoolas, you will recall, is the wife of a US security officer and the driver who turned onto the wrong side of the road when leaving a US airbase and sent the young British motorcyclist, Harry Dunn, to heaven. These things are tragic but they happen and anyone who has ever driven in a foreign country knows just how easy it is, in a moment of confusion, to make this mistake. Why Ms. Sacoolas was not simply allowed to face court and put the awful incident with which she will have to live for the rest of her life behind her, God knows. The full force of American Diplomatic immunity was instead brought to bear to whisk her back to the United States and then to refuse to allow her to be extradited. Mike Pompeo, no less, has in person rejected the demand from the British Government. This is condemned as `a denial of justice` which it most certainly is and for the US Government to now offer `how to drive in Britain` lessons to its personnel serving in the UK is not going to put the matter to bed.
In other news Prince William and Sir David Attenborough have launched the” Earthshot Prize” based on the Project Apollo “Moonshot” spirit and designed to promote initiatives to combat global warming before we reach the “ten year tipping point”. This at the end of the second hottest decade in history. (The hottest was 2000-2010). In Australia bushfires have continued to rage, an estimated five hundred million animals have died and thousands of hectares of habitat have been lost.
Jeremy Corbyn will stay on as Leader of the Labour Party until his successor is chosen in April. At present Sir Keir Starmer leads a field of four remaining candidates for the job.
Lord (Tony) Hall has indicated his departure as Director General of the BBC and the Salford Broadcasting Corporation now seeks a new leader while the whole status and future of the Public Service Broadcaster is coming under sharp Government focus for review.
Three years after the split the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland has resumed. In a modest triumph for Julian Smith, the Northern Ireland Secretary, it looks as though Sinn Fein and the DUP, both for their own reasons, will be returning to Stormont before rule from Westminster becomes permanent.
There are calls to axe the High Speed Rail project, in whole or in part, and to `spend the money in the North` but at present the balance of probabilities – and a Prime Ministerial answer to a question on a children`s television channel - suggest that HS2 will get the green light.
Cameras, already permitted in the Supreme court, are now to be admitted to criminal courts. The Attorney General Robert Buckland, believes that this will `improve public understanding of the legal system`. The Bar Council believes, and I share this view, that it will reduce justice to a spectator sport.
And then, of course, there is Coronavirus. The lethal flu-like disease, which appears to have had its roots in the city of Wuhan in China, now in lockdown had, at the months` end, affected some six thousand people and left 132 dead. That toll is now, of course rising. There have been outbreaks of the virus in other parts of the world including in France and Britain and on cruise ships, UK citizens have been repatriated from China by charter flights and quarantined here at home and it remains to be seen whether or not an epidemic metamorphoses into a pandemic. That, though, is likely to be next month`s story.
The Royal Mint will be issuing coins to commemorate VE Day, King George 111, Agatha Christie, The Mayflower and the Tokyo Olympics. I have yet to see a commemorative Brexit 50p in circulation. Am I alone in this?
Meanwhile £360 million in polymer plastic £5 (Churchill) banknotes have been ruined due to `wear and tear` which is a euphemism for melting while being ironed in shirt pockets.
Following a decline in local authority refuse tip provision there has been an increase in the incidence of fly-tipping from 700 thousand cases in 2013 to 1.1 million in 2019.
The resolution Foundation`s research has revealed that there has been a decline in the number of students and young people taking Saturday jobs from 48.1% in the 1990s to a current 25.4% Easier, it seems, to borrow now and pay later rather than to earn now, save and spend later.
The cash-strapped Salford Broadcasting Corporation (the one that wants to abolish the concessionary TV licence fee) is reported to have spent £24, ooo on Prosecco and other wines to the end of March 2019 – a 20% increase. The expenditure, you will be pleased to know, is subject to “strict rules and procedures”. Mine`s a double.
Burger King, the fast-food chain has introduced a `veggieburger` that cannot be eaten by vegetarians. For why? The Rebel Whopper is cooked on the same griddles as meat burgers.
And Greggs have felt obliged to close the Saltash, Cornwall, service station store. The Cornish demand is, it seems, for genuine Cornish pasties, not `past slices`.
The EHRC (Human Rights Commission) has decreed that `after-work pub banter` can be construed as sexual harassment. On second thoughts, mine`s a glass of water.
The Scottish FA are to ban the heading of footballs by under-12s on the grounds that `it can lead to dementia in later life`. The English FA are introducing no such ban because there is no scientific evidence to back up this claim.
The Mushroom Bureau`s most recent survey shows that one in twenty Britons believe that potatoes grow on trees as do one in for think the same of parsnips. A third of the population thinks that apples are tropical fruit while one in twenty believe that pineapples grow in the United Kingdom and that green beans are a root vegetable.
And The Robert Peacock public house in Gravesend in Kent, a Weatherspoon hostelry, has declared a ban on parents with children in tow having more than two drinks to protect children from harm and adults from unsupervised and rampaging children. In fact, the splendid 1902 Licencing Act, still in force, decrees that it is an offence to be `drunk in charge of a child under seven in a public place`.
Georges Duboeuf (86) was known as `The Pope of Beaujolais`. In the 1950s he founded L`Ecrin Macconais-Beaujolais and promoted the launch of the famous `Beaujolais Nouveau Day` of the 1980s. His own company was responsible for the sale of thirty million bottles a year.
Sir Roger Scruton (75) was a philosopher, teacher, public educationalist, and Conservative intellectual He was the driving force behind the Salisbury review.
Tony Garnett (83) was the Enfant terrible of the BBCs cadre of film and TV producers of the 1960s. Garnett was recruited by the Head of Drama in 1964 Garnett`s Up The Junction (1965) and Cathy Come Home (1966) were seminal left-wing films of the decade. He made Kes as an independent producer director in 1965 before moving on to Hollywood feature films.
Lord Chalfont (100) A career soldier and journalist as Gwynne Jones he was a prominent Labour disarmament campaigner and pro-EEC activist before resigning from the Parliamentary Labour Party in 1974 and became Chairman of the Radio Authority under Margaret Thatcher in 1990.
Christopher Beeny (78) was the actor who featured in Dixon of Dock Green and Emergency Ward 10 in the 1960s. He played a footman and chauffeur in Upstairs Downstairs between 1971 and 1975. Beeny appeared twenty-seven times in Last of the Summer Wine.
Billy Hughes (70) played soccer for Sunderland and was a member of the `Giant Killer Squad` in 1973 when Sunderland beat Don Revie`s Leeds United 1-0 at Roker Park.
Derek Fowlds (82) trained at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and began his career in weekly repertory theatre in Colwyn Bay in 1958was Basil Brush`s “Mr Derek” before becoming Bernard Woolley, the Private Secretary in “Yes Minister” in the 1980s and then, in 1992, Sgt. Oscar Blakeston in Heartbeat.
Lord (Rob) MacLennan (83) was the Member of Parliament for Caithness and Sutherland for thirty-five years until 2001 when he was given a life Peerage. As a Socialist he held junior office and in 1966 defied his Party`s whip to support membership of the EEC. With Roy Jenkins he was instrumental in the creation of the Social Democratic Party of which, in 1981, he became Leader. He merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988. Rob MacLennan hailed from a family with a strong musical tradition and was the librettist for David Horne`s opera Friend of the People, first performed by Scottish Opera in 1999. A mild-mannered, courteous and politically courageous gentleman.
Peter Hobday (82) was one of the hosts of the BBC`s Radio 4 Today Programme for fourteen years to 1996. He then moved to The World at One and The Money Programme.
And Seamus Mallon (83) was the SDLP Member of Parliament for Newry and Armagh in Northern Ireland until 1986. The Catholic Irish Nationalist spent twenty-two years as the Deputy Leader of the SDLP between 1979 and 2001 and, at great personal risk, condemned all violence in the province. He was instrumental in forging the Northern Ireland `Good Friday` (Belfast) agreement and became the Deputy First Minister in the Stormont Assembly.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp. With the populist right on the rise throughout Europe how much have we really learned from the Holocaust?