Last weekend the Times columnist Matthew Parris wrote a hard-hitting and chilling article explaining why he thinks (and he won’t be alone) ‘we’re going to the dogs’. ‘We haven’t quite woken up to the mess we’re in yet, but we will. In the unconscious mind of the nation the dots are all there, waiting to be joined up. When the connections are made, and as his Marbella tan begins to peel, the aimless occupant of 10 Downing Street will be in for a shock. The new queues are of ships at ports such as Felixstowe. Pictures of acres of unfetched containers have put the wind up retailers and consumers alike as Christmas approaches. A first-world problem? First-world governments are elected to take first-world problems seriously. Johnson appears not to.. Suffice it to say we scent panic at the heart of government. Above the voters’ heads floats an unsettled sense of official confusion. Ministers seem to be making speeches, but pulling levers connected to nothing.
The core problem is him. Directionless and without momentum now Brexit is done and Covid survived, Johnson is a giggling impediment to the unifying sense of political momentum that Mandelson describes. It may be his insouciance itself that brings him down….A feeling persists that there’s an unoccupied place at the centre of our politics. “Levelling up” won’t hack it, and may soon attract the scorn that “the Big Society” finally invited. Politics abhors a vacuum. “Watch this space” is often a lazy way of ending a column, but this time there really is a space. Watch it’.
Several ongoing key issues set his observations in context, including COP26, Covid, the parlous state of the NHS, Brexit, worsening supply chain issues plus the latest spat with the French over fishing rights, none of which can be deleted or overlooked by this week’s Spending Review despite Rishi Sunak’s best efforts to project fantasy level optimism.
As the climate change conference (COP26) approaches, with Covid cases rising rapidly to over 1000 deaths a week, the government’s reluctance (remind you of anything?) to implement ‘Plan B’ looks increasingly connected. Having already, with the usual lack of self-awareness, embarrassed itself environmentally with proposed legislation allowing water companies to continue discharging sewage into rivers (followed by a rapid U-turn) and the incomprehensible Spending Review measure to cut tax on internal flights, the government won’t want any further obvious humiliation in the form of enforced mask wearing and social distancing as foreign leaders enter the UK. Therefore we can perhaps expect the reintroduction of restrictions the minute COP is over. But already COP26 itself is looking a bit like a damp squib, with some key polluting countries not attending, not to mention the Queen, the extravagant razzmatazz beforehand and Johnson himself trying to dampen down expectations of this event having trumpeted non-stop about it all year.
Meanwhile people will continue suffering and dying as ministers ignore health experts, some even publicly contradicting them and trying to invalidate their concerns. Professor Peter Openshaw, a key adviser to the government and member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the current number of cases and deaths rates were unacceptable, and reiterated the importance of measures such as working from home and mask wearing. He fears another Christmas lockdown and urged the public to do everything possible to reduce the spread of the virus. Despite the government’s macho stance the Observer found out that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) contacted local authorities last week to canvass their level of support for the “immediate rollout of the winter plan – plan B”.
Another blow for the government is further evidence that vaccination is not the silver bullet it keeps pretending it is, a study having shown that double vaccination does not prevent household transmission.’ Albeit a fairly small sample, the results suggest that even those who are fully vaccinated have a sizeable risk of becoming infected, with analysis revealing a fully vaccinated contact has a 25% chance of catching the virus from an infected household member while an unvaccinated contact has a 38% chance of becoming infected’.
The Spending Review predictably occupied many column inches and dominated the airwaves this week, some of this being the valuable commentary deconstructing this budget (eg from the Resolution Foundation) which, sadly, many won’t read because they only follow the headlines. To listen to the Chancellor, it sounded like one fantastic intervention after another, resulting in cheers and ‘hear hear’ all round in the Commons. But Labour Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and commentators wasted no time in proving that, in fact, many more families would be paying more tax than the numbers forecast by Rishi Sunak to gain from this Budget. It seems that the promises of money for mental health ‘support’ (often a weasel word for the use of short-term and superficial interventions not helpful over the longer term) have mostly not been fulfilled. These were said to be directed especially to new parents and the government is also audaciously pinching New Labour’s innovatory Sure Start family support initiative, most of those centres having been closed by successive Conservative administrations. The new ‘family hubs’ will take some time to set up, by which time the parlous state of NHS mental health services will get even worse.
Nursery World reports in more detail on the Spending Review’s measures directed at family support – £500m including ‘£80 million for the Family Hubs, where families can go to access the services they need in one place. These result from MP Andrea Leadsom’s Early Years Healthy Development Review, which highlights the first 1001 days of a child’s life as crucial for children’s health and wellbeing and called for families to have access to services’. But we didn’t need Andrea Leadsom to demonstrate the obvious – New Labour based their successful Sure Start centres on exactly this kind of evidence which has been in the public domain for many years.
Meanwhile, mental health services are generally in a dire state. Mind, Rethink and other mental health organisations have expressed ‘disappointment’ about this, which is putting it mildly given 1.6 million people on the waiting list and another eight million needing treatment but not meeting clinical thresholds. Mind’s Vicki Nash, head of policy, campaigns and public affairs, acknowledged that, while the Budget did reveal that spending on the NHS in England will increase by £44bn, clarity was needed about the mental health investment because ‘the nation’s mental health is at breaking point’. The impact of the pandemic is being felt throughout the services but it’s striking that there’s been a 29% increase in the number of people being referred to NHS services for a suspected first episode of psychosis compared to pre-pandemic levels. This is hardly surprising considering the uncertain world we are living in but also given the lack of competent leadership which would help contain public anxiety.
I doubt whether I’ve ever heard a more embarrassing speech than Rishi Sunak’s on Wednesday: yes, he’s a good performer but in parts he almost came across as a stand-up comedian, with those theatrical digs at the EU, for example, which didn’t even stand scrutiny. The government is fond of saying such-and-such wouldn’t have been possible during our EU membership when this is not the case, for example the development of free ports. The speech was full of deluded declarations like ‘this is a government that invests and delivers’, describing the Conservatives as ‘the real party of public services’ when they’ve decimated public services over the years. Some commentaries described it as ‘smoke and mirrors’, with only 20% of new money (the rest being recycled from previous announcements), the amounts promised being nowhere near enough and average take-home pay increasing only slightly or. even declining. Rishi Sunak said he was “not comfortable or happy” about the tax burden as it emerged that the average household would pay £3,000 more in taxes thanks to the decisions he and Boris Johnson have made. But his stance seemed to be that there’s no alternative: one would be to equip the authorities like HMRC to claim all unpaid tax.
The Guardian usefully summarises the Autumn Budget’s main points, accusing the Chancellor of ‘smoke and mirrors’.
The Resolution Foundation think tank analyses it, pointing out that the Chancellor has set the stage for a new high tax economy – rather than the high wage economy pledged by the Prime Minister, or the low tax one favoured by many Conservative MPs. It’s a bit befuddling hearing the government talking up our economic growth when the Foundation says the UK is in the midst of its weakest decade for pay growth since the 1930s.
Days before the start of COP26 it also beggars belief that the Chancellor has reduced the tax on internal flights. It will be interesting to see what demand is now triggered by this change. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Rishi Sunak cuts rate of air passenger duty for domestic flights in half for 9m UK travellers a year. Errr… the week before COP?! Madness!
We’re told that, talking to the press on his flight to Rome for the G20 meeting, Boris Johnson likened the globe’s battle against the climate emergency to a football team losing 5-1 at half-time. ‘I would say that humanity as a whole is about 5-1 down at half-time. We’ve got a long way to go, but we can do it. We have the ability to come back but it’s going to take a huge amount of effort. Team World is up against a very formidable opponent in climate change’. What’s so cringe worthy is the media repeating his frequent statements of the obvious as if they’re pronouncements of the oracle. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Please do not parrot PM Johnson’s counterproductive hyperbole … it only encourages him to be even more of an embarrassment to us all’. He’s already dampened down expectations of COP, saying it’s ‘part of the process’ of keeping on track with the Paris accord goal of limiting warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. At least the threatened rail strike in Glasgow has been cancelled, which would have been quite some embarrassment but problems persist such as shortages of accommodation and staff.
As Brexit-related issues rumble on, ‘Lord’ Frost has picked yet another fight with the EU (nothing to do with causing a distraction from Covid and supply chain issues, of course), this time accusing them of endangering part of the science programme. Frost said the UK was “getting quite concerned” about Brussels delaying ratification of the UK’s participation in the €80bn (£67bn) Horizon Europe research programme, which could cost British scientists their place in pan-European research programmes. The seven year Horizon programme is regarded at least by scientists as very important as it would ‘help the UK maintain a thriving science ecosystem supporting jobs in universities and laboratories as well as acting as a magnet for overseas talent’. There’s a suspicion the delay in ratifying the UK’s role was related to the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, particularly the continuing role of the European Court of Justice the UK has fought against, as other non-EU countries like Norway have had their places ratified.
Another embarrassing issue for the UK which isn’t going away is the Prince Andrew versus Virginia Guiffre case, which so far lawyers acting for the Prince have tried to use technicalities to invalidate. Last week we heard that Andrew must answer questions under oath by next July in relation to the lawsuit. Now his lawyers have asked the judge to drop the case, suggesting Ms Guiffre is after ‘a payday’ – some accusation and trivialisation of her case, some may argue. The request also said if the case wasn’t dismissed, Ms Giuffre should provide a “more definitive statement” of her allegations, which sounds like playing for time, and that ‘accusing a member of the world’s best known royal family of serious misconduct has helped Giuffre create a media frenzy online and in the traditional press’. If that’s not playing the ‘royal family is above reproach’ card I don’t know what is. The next hearing is on 3 November, after which, perhaps, we can expect to hear yet more ingenious defences suggested to rescue the Prince from this case and what must difficult isolation for him.
In what seems extraordinary lack of awareness, it was reported during the week that locals interviewed in Oswestry didn’t know that their MP, Owen Paterson, is facing a 30 day Commons suspension for breaking lobbying rules. The former cabinet minister was found to have breached paid advocacy rules two years after it was revealed that he helped lobby for two firms he was paid to advise – Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods. Not one but two separate committees found him guilty of an ‘egregious case of paid advocacy, repeatedly using his privileged position to benefit two companies for whom he was a paid consultant and bringing the Commons into disrepute’. The Parliamentary Standards Commissioner would hardly deliver such a judgement lightly, yet Paterson continues to plead his innocence, his daughter also now saying there’s been a miscarriage of justice and Paterson saying he wants to go to court to clear his name.
Locals interviewed barely had a good word for this MP, one saying what a contrast he was to his predecessor, John Biffen, and although there is sympathy for Paterson having lost his wife, who had taken her own life, the committees must have felt that this was not relevant to their judgement. Many of these locals were of the view that politicians were all ‘as bad as each other’ but the cost of their ignorance of politics, especially concerning their own areas, is making it easier overall for the less able and less than honest to thrive in politics and government. Wouldn’t you just know that despite the suspension decision, this could be reduced to 24 hours and Paterson’s career saved due to some political manoeuvring by Conservative allies?
In a bid to curtail the illegal market in drugs, which leads to so much misery, Luxembourg has become the first European country to legalise growing and using cannabis. ‘Under the legislation, people aged 18 and over will be able to legally grow up to four cannabis plants per household for personal use. Trade in seeds will also be permitted without any limit on the quantity or levels of Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the principal psychoactive constituent’. The THC measure is interesting in view of its strength. The change is for domestic cultivation and use only, public use and transport remaining illegal but we have to wonder whether the first change won’t lead to changes to public use, especially when that offence won’t attract a criminal categorisation and fines will be reduced.
‘Luxembourg will join Canada, Uruguay and 11 US states in flouting a UN convention on the control of narcotic drugs, which commits signatories to limit “exclusively for medical and scientific purposes the production, manufacture, export, import distribution, trade, employment and possession of drugs” including cannabis’. Whatever happens, other European countries will be awaiting developments with interest because of the ongoing war against drugs in so many societies.
We regularly hear about young people moving back in with their parents because of the difficulties of getting onto the housing ladder. Perhaps a new development attributed to the pandemic is that of ‘baby boomer boomerangs’. ‘The reasons are varied, from the positive – grown-up children ensuring their parents had care and company during lockdowns – to the negative, including financial and relationship breakdowns….. Polly Neate, the chief executive of Shelter, the homelessness and housing charity, said falling incomes – whether through furlough, job losses or relationship breakdowns – had left some older people “barely hanging on to their homes during the pandemic’. Some reported a good experience, being able to support elderly parents and saving money, but there can be an issue with dependency and infantilisation, and one man found the experience difficult.
‘When the pandemic hit, I was put on full furlough. This turned out to be advantageous as it meant I could look after my parents and ensure they could remain fully isolated. But things changed dramatically as the lockdown progressed. The lack of exercise had an adverse effect on them and by the end of the final lockdown, it was apparent they needed so much help that I can’t leave here now. What started out as a temporary arrangement has become a permanent one. The only comfort I have is that at least I have been able to help my parents by living with them’. As the lockdowns could recur and there’s no sign of the housing crisis and relationship breakdowns abating, perhaps we can expect much more inter-generational house sharing in the future.
Finally, art and heritage enthusiasts will be interested, even excited, by the massive new Munch museum in Oslo, 13 stories and costing £235m, except they’re not even calling it a museum. Its architect and its director are keen to show they’re about more than the artist’s best known work, the Scream, and want to create a different experience, for example calling it simply Munch, and not the Munch museum. The director tells us to ‘forget everything you know about museums, this is totally different’.
‘More than a decade in the making, and subject to intense political wrangling over its cost, form and location, the museum finally opened on Friday, one of the largest in the world dedicated to a single artist. It is a mighty mall of Munch, a towering stack of 11 galleries connected by zigzagging escalators, crowned with a rooftop restaurant and bar’. It will be interesting to see what visitors make of it.