It seems every week packs a punch in terms of hefty and impacting news items, but this last one must be in pole position, with (quietly and predictably) Portugal once more removed from England’s non-quarantine list, the worrying rise in new COVID cases, the lack of test availability, the limit of 6 gathering inside or out being reimposed from Monday, Birmingham hovering on the brink of lockdown and now the outcry over the government’s Internal Market bill, which seeks to break international law ‘in a small and significant way’. It seems only now are some senior Conservatives, including Theresa May and Lord Howard, seeing what the last few months have led to, some reacting with dismay as it if it couldn’t have been predicted. It’s seen as an example of extreme bad faith and an overturning of the Good Friday Agreement. Labour peer Andrew Adonis tweeted: ‘A European ambassador in London said to me last night: ‘It is a real problem for the west when Britain has rogue government which announces it won’t abide by treaties it has signed. My country did that in the 1930s. Look what happened’.
This international embarrassment also caused the government’s top lawyer, Sir Jonathan Jones, to resign, the 6th senior civil servant to depart this year. The Financial Times first broke the story, linking his departure to “suggestions that Boris Johnson is trying to row back on parts of last year’s Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland”. The FT reported people close to Sir Jonathan as saying ‘he was very unhappy about the decision to overwrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol’. Such upheavals will no doubt cause more to supplement their No Deal stockpiles during the next few months.
Meanwhile, Matt Hancock was reprimanded for issuing the Rule of 6 (sounds like something from a conspiracy theory) via Twitter rather than first announcing it in Parliament. Not for the first time, the plan was announced without consultation with local government as to how the proposed enforcers (COVID marshals) were to be funded and recruited and at least one Police Federation head has said enforcing this limit won’t be their priority. It also sounds as if the police are becoming increasingly resentful about the additional duties imposed on already stretched forces. Those planning big gatherings before the rules kick in on Monday might feel less pressure because there’s such a low chance of enforcement. John Crace offered another eviscerating account of the Health Secretary’s ‘rant’ in Parliament, when derision greeted his announcement of ‘moonshot’ testing. ‘One of the glories of Matt – the thing that makes him a near national treasure – is that he has no idea that it is the seriousness with which he now takes himself that makes him a laughing stock to the rest of us’.
In The Guardian, George Monbiot rails against what he sees as the UK’s corruption: ‘Every week, Boris Johnson looks more like George I, under whose government vast fortunes were made by political favourites, through monopoly contracts for military procurement. Any pretence of fiscal rectitude or democratic accountability has been abandoned. With four more years and the support of the billionaire press, who cares?’ He says that although people may be shocked when the words UK and corruption are mentioned in the same breath, as the UK is low down the official international corruption rankings, these listings’ criteria are narrow. What’s not fully considered is corruption of a more sophisticated kind, especially via laundering the money of other countries’ illegitimate activity and organised crime. This is the first time I heard that the City is protected from FOI: ‘The City of London’s astonishing exemption from the UK’s freedom of information laws creates an extra ring of secrecy’. Monbiot believes the situation will become even worse as a result of a no deal Brexit: ‘When the EU’s feeble restraints are removed, under a government that seems entirely uninterested in basic accountability, the message we send to the rest of the world will be even clearer than it is today: come here to wash your loot’.
As the working from home vs returning to the office debate rumbles on, the BBC has continued its interesting Rethink series, looking at how life could change as a result of the pandemic. This episode specifically focuses on cities. It asks ‘does a combination of Covid-19 and new technology mean that the need for dense concentrations of people is lessening? Many city dwellers – especially those recently forced to work from home – have wondered why they were paying high urban prices during lockdown and looked enviously at those in larger homes in suburbs or the countryside. Is now a moment to rethink conurbations – in terms of transport, planning and amenities – to move from a concrete jungle to a green and pleasant cityscape?’ This seems very likely, as a good number of workers welcome the absence of a stressful commute, can spend more time getting to know their local area and supporting that local economy rather than the anonymous central one, and estate agents are seeing higher demand for properties by the sea and in the countryside.
The question would then be what happens to the resulting central ‘ghost towns’ like Canary Wharf, which CBI head Carolyn Fairbairn warned about. Maybe people are less worried about this than she expects, as the urging back to the office is often seen as a cynical way of boosting corporates’ businesses at workers’ risk. ‘We have to get closer to nature’, said one contributor, rather than continuing with faceless blocks built for the benefit of developers rather than the welfare of those working in them. ‘Cities have to be about more than economics’, says presenter Amol Rajan, the BBC’s Media Editor. The programme also features a global panel of contributors based in Copenhagen, Beijing, Washington, Sao Paulo and Kampala. At least some experts agree that we have to get together at work (at some points), otherwise we’re just many isolated units, with all the implications this has for the organisation’s mission and esprit de corps, so a consensus may emerge of WFH some days and going into the office on the others.
Two well-known newspaper columnists, Nigella Lawson and Oliver Burkeman, have recently written their last columns, both giving tips on how to live well. Burkeman’s were particularly worth thinking about: ‘…..these are the principles that surfaced again and again, and that now seem to me most useful for navigating times as baffling and stress-inducing as ours’. All his eight ‘principles’ are interesting and invite reflection, eg ‘There will always be too much to do – and this realisation is liberating’ (…you needn’t berate yourself for failing to do it all, since doing it all is structurally impossible) and ‘When stumped by a lifechoice, choose “enlargement” over happiness’. Burkeman has written in at least one book about the illusory pursuit of ‘happiness’, a goal and expectation embedded in our culture, which needs challenging and deconstructing. He credits Jungian therapist James Hollis for the advice that ‘major personal decisions should be made not by asking, “Will this make me happy?”, but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?” Well worth a read: he will be a hard act for the next columnist to follow.
An online lecture last week from Birkbeck College, University of London, featured Professor of Psychology Renate Salecl (author of The Tyranny of Choice and other works) talking about her latest book, A Passion for Ignorance. Informed by philosophy, social and psychoanalytic theory, popular culture, and her own experience, she explained how the passion for ignorance plays out in many different aspects of life today, from love, illness, trauma, and the fear of failure to genetics, forensic science, big data, and the incel movement. Interestingly, she concludes that ignorance is a complex phenomenon which isn’t always a bad thing – in some circumstances she argues that it can benefit individuals and society as a whole. Her arguments about the ‘post-truth’ world reveal how some react to the ‘constant flood of information and misinformation’. If people feel overwhelmed and sceptical, unable to distinguish truth from falsehood, it can lead to a distrust of expertise and a preference for some kind of certainty, however dubious, rather than engage with the complex, nuanced and messy entity which actually characterises human existence.
Professor Salecl would have been writing this book for some time but her lecture felt very central to what we are seeing now, for example a government economical with the truth and groups of people resorting to conspiracy theory or preferring to believe COVID doesn’t exist or climate change isn’t happening because it’s easier than coming to terms with the sheer uncertainty of our situation and the fear this can generate. She refers to Nancy Tuana’s Four Kinds of Ignorance (which we learned in psychotherapy training as the Johari Window), the worst being ignorance of ignorance, how the mechanics of power help keep people ignorant, and the quality of blindness preventing us from seeing, preferring the preservation of illusions. It’s certainly a timely exploration of (as the blurb suggests) ‘how the knowledge economy became an ignorance economy, what it means for us, and what it tells us about the world today’.
At a time when much of the culture and heritage industry is under severe financial pressure, it was good news to hear this week that the Bronte Parsonage Museum has received a grant of £20k from the estate of T S Eliot. The museum had been closed during lockdown and had launched a £100k crowdfunding appeal when this boost arrived, apparently made possible by the royalties the estate receives from the musical Cats.
Finally, The Week reported a serious but amusing prank, which took place in Israel last week. Hundreds of bags of cannabis were dropped by drone onto Tel Aviv, organised by advocates of legalising cannabis, who messaged on the Telegram app: ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the green drone handing out free cannabis from the sky’. The two drone operator suspects were later arrested, but we’re not told how many bags made it into people’s homes.