Note: This is a purely personal record of a by no means unique experience, intended for family and friends. It is of little or no interest to anyone else. Comments appended at the end of the post will be read and appreciated but I shall not respond to them for the time being, anyway. I shall add to this post from time to time to bring the diary up to date.
Tuesday 16 April 2013: Operation day. Waltz athletically into the hospital, wondering what has prompted me to volunteer to have a replacement of a knee that’s functioning pretty well, most of the time, anyway. But the consultant orthopaedic surgeon, Mr F, insists that if I leave them, both knees will become unbearably painful, and that if I defer replacements much longer I’ll be too old to survive what is a very major operation. (I’m 80 next year.) Convinced, I ask Mr F about the possibility of having both knees replaced at the same time, to get it over — I recently met a middle-aged lady who had had both knees replaced only a few months earlier and who seemed to be in very good nick. Mr F laughs lightly: “At your age? Out of the question. You wouldn’t survive a double knee replacement.” Rather thought-provoking.
Later same day: I have chosen an injection in the spine rather than a traditional general anaesthetic so when I come to in the recovery room surrounded by sinister gowned figures I feel none of the discomforts (sore throat especially) usually associated with regaining consciousness after an operation. But I’m still completely paralysed from the waist down. Very odd feeling.
No pain so far. But someone told me solemnly that a knee replacement is the most painful of all such ops, appreciably worse than a hip replacement as the hip has almost no moving parts to stretch and contract the surrounding mutilated muscles and tissue. Pity I can’t stay half-paralysed until the tissue has healed and the pain worn off.
Wednesday 17 April: Well, it certainly hurts now. An array of painkillers of varying efficacy is provided. Most have the disagreeable side-effect of severe constipation. At this stage am quite content to be constipated as the relatively pain-free alternative to either the dreaded bed-pan or being forced to get out of bed and stumble to the loo on the faintly comical Zimmer frame. Fortunately am still catheterised so liquid waste pours uncontrolled into capacious bag on the floor.
Thursday 18 April: Catheter removed, quite a nasty sensation. Find I have no bladder control, resulting in unseemly rush to get at bottle under the bed before it’s too late (it usually is). Nurses promise that control will return. Hope they’re right.
Am got out of bed to hobble about briefly on Zimmer frame. Left (damaged) leg very painful in vertical position even when not weight-bearing. Taken in wheel-chair to first of many sessions in the hydrotherapy pool. White hospital stockings peeled off both legs for first time which is a relief. Struck by extraoridnary beauty of young hydro nurses: hard to believe they are all sadists until they get their slender but strong hands on you. Warm water in the hydro pool is pleasantly soothing but the exercises, mostly involving forcing left leg to bend at the knee further than it can go, are excruciating. Sweating profusely from pain into the warm water. Have a token shower, supported by Zimmer as usual. Back to the ward where white pressure stockings are put on again by patient nurse who understandably can’t get stocking onto the left leg without forcing it to bend well beyond point of tolerance. Indicate the effect of this by screaming. This earns contemptuous look from nurse.
19 April: Beginning to settle into routine of moderately effective painkillers for two days, constipation, manage without painkillers for next two days, start of end of constipation, resume painkillers. Annoyingly, virtually impossible to read, despite early morning delivery of the Guardian, whole stack of books beckoning on Kindle, and inviting pile of old unread copies of the London Review of Books. Pain is the biggest obstacle to reading, followed by constant interruptions for measuring blood pressure and blood sugar, delivery of quite nice looking meals for which I have no appetite and generally can’t force down (last meal arrives at 5:30pm!), and the ceremony of the presentation of the relevant pills from the locked safe on the wall, each humble pill checked and double-checked before being handed over to me to swallow it. Pill deliveries have been divided up into an elaborate timetable under which certain pills are delivered at set times that bear no relation to reality or convenience. The only real pleasure of these days is the morning mobile call to J,. and her two or three daily visits.
22 April: New knee perceptibly more swollen (and painful) than three days ago. Mr F, the consultant, on his morning visit, examines it and pronounces everything normal. The swelling will come and go for the first week or two. Nothing to worry about! Admittedly before the operation the leg suffered from pronounced lymphoedema (swelling due to damage to lymphatic drainage system caused by a bike accident seven years ago) and a badly twisted calf muscle from tripping in early March in Charleston, SC, so there may never be the complete recovery to be expected of a previously healthy leg. (Suppose I should have thought of that before choosing to have the left knee done first, or at all.)
23 April: Discharged and allowed home on probation! No improvement so far in swelling and pain despite agonising hours of exercises in water and out of it. Beginning of a serious ordeal for J, barely two months younger than me, for whom putting on the infernal stockings without reducing me to a howling infant is an almost insurmountable challenge. Various bits of invalid equipment now litter the house — a raised toilet seat with handrail, an invaluable 4-foot grabber operated by a trigger, the essential white plastic bottle ingeniously shaped to accommodate the male anatomy, non-slip bathmat….
26 April: Unaccountably feeling much better. After visit to hydro at the hospital (involving painful contortions getting into and out of the car, J standing appalled and unable to help), feel up to a visit to the Ms, our near neighbours, about 200 metres from the house. Limp across on crutches over tricky cobbles, flagging towards the end. Revive after refereshing Lapsang Souchong and manage to limp back to the house. Navigate the stairs to the bedroom and fall on the bed, exhausted.
27 April: Swelling and pain worse than ever. Badly constipated. Worst day yet. No sign of any improvement except in ability to raise left foot from the floor by about two inches if absolutely essential.
28 April: Feeling very poorly. Back-ache from trying to sit up in bed without proper support from pillows. Hollow laughter on reading several kind messages hoping that the “improvement will continue”. What improvement? Nature makes it impossible for people to conceive that anyone won’t have started to get better two weeks after a major operation. Of course there are indeed improvements in a couple of marginal areas but the main problem of swelling, pain and restricted leg movement is no better and often worse.
Series of domestic disasters designed to aggravate the already barely tolerable heavy load on J. The new washing machine delivered and installed by John Lewis, highly reputable UK store, bucks and bounds around the kitchen when it reaches the Spin mode, severely bruising J’s hands and arms as she struggles to subdue it. The installers forgot to remove some retaining bolts used for transporting the machine. John Lewis promise a replacement, apologetically. Some painting and decorating due to be done during my absence in hospital has to be postponed pending delivery of new washing machine. The shower in the spare bathroom that I was going to use (because it’s easier to struggle into and out of the bath there) turns out to be broken and seized up. The cold tap in the downstairs loo suddenly gushes water, unstoppably, of course on a Sunday evening. Call out plumbers from Yellow Pages and pay Sunday evening rates (our spelendid plumber neighbour is away).
Monday 29 April: An hour of exceptionally expert physiotherapy (not in the hydro pool) followed by 45 minutes of extraordinarily effective massage by a trained lymphoedema massage nurse (an attractive Portuguese-Angolan). Could almost feel the hard lumps of grossly swollen tissue being gently softened and partly dispersed. Now permitted two 10-minute crutches-assisted walks in the garden daily, and to sit at the dining-table or the computer with wounded leg pointing south — both banned until now. But still no reduction in the swelling or, therefore, the constant distracting pain. Bending the leg at the knee still very limited and sometimes agonising.
One of the worst things about the experience, apart from the obvious ones, is that one’s forced into solipsism. All days and all conversations are focused exclusively on the condition of The Leg and the rest of the ancient carcase to which it’s attached. Not only does one become solipsistic: one’s infantilised, by total dependence, difficulty in performing simple actions, fighting to head off mounting obsession with excretory functions, constant moral pressure to try harder with the horrible painful exercises, with the threat, sometimes explicit, that if you don’t “try harder”, you’ll never get better. The language used by most of the medics is that of the nursery. “Try and slide your heel back a little further for me!” “How are we feeling this morning?” (We?)
The physios keep reminding me that it’s less than two weeks since the operation and that I mustn’t expect miracles. The swelling will begin to go down, the pain will begin to recede, but it will all take time. Meanwhile I feel distinctly weak and poorly most of the time, have to force myself to eat, dread the interminable reaches of every night. Still, must think positive: J gallantly went out specially this evening to buy me a bed-rest contraption, to enable me to sit more or less upright in bed, built roughly on the principles of a deck-chair. This will make a big difference and spare me much back pain. My crutchmanship has earned me qualified praise. I haven’t so far been plagued by my usual intermittent but severe tinnitus. I think my mouth ulcers may be retreating, slowly. The sun’s been shining and I have a lovely view from our bedroom window. I am surely losing some weight and I’m not even tempted by wine, whisky or any other such tipple. Today I managed to drag on a pair of shorts completely unaided Out there in the real world thousands are being reduced to penury by a vicious ideology-driven government and I don’t even have to wrestle with my conscience over whether to go on protest marches, deliver Labour Party leaflets or attend dismal ward meetings. J contnues to cope cheerfully and contrives somehow to conceal her utter exhaustion. On Sky Arts 2 (television) overweight Austrians are performing the most hilariously overblown pretentious version of The Messiah I’ve ever seen or heard, and laughter is therapeutic. I’m forced to concede that things could be worse. But not much.
Wed. 1 May: At last some glimmerings of progress, no doubt to celebrate MayDay, the socialists’ festival. In the past 48 hours the swelling around the knee (and down the calf) has definitely begun to subside, although almost imperceptibly. The physios swear that the maximum extent to which I can bend the leg at the knee has increased from 55 to just over 80 degrees (don’t ask me to explain) in the past week. I can raise my left foot about an inch off the floor, which is an inch more than a week ago. But each of these dazzling achievements comes at an atrocious price in toil, tears and sweat, if not so far in blood. I live on a diet of paracetamol and Tramadol, the latter offset by prunes and laxative in a delicate balance. Apart from the prunes, virtually all food is nauseating to me, a totally unfamiliar experience. I force down what I can, and J labours mightily to titillate the worn-out appetite, but inevitably I get steadily weaker. Now that I’m allowed to have a few minutes’ walk each day in the open air, perhaps some vestiges of appetite will creep back. But it’s not easy to fit in a mini-walk into the iron schedule: ice leg; do painful exercises; eat; go to the hospital for more hydro, dry-land physio, or Manual Lymphatic Drainage (or MLD) massage, the latter looking faintly suspect from its, or rather her, website, but certainly seeming to produce benefits. Anyway, even if it’s bogus, it’s soothing and restful. (Another session is due tomorrow.)
None of these activities looks particularly time-consuming, but if you could see me putting on shoes or manoeuvring myself into or out of the car, even with anxious assistance from J, you’d begin to understand that everything takes around seven or eight times as long as it did in those dear long-ago careless days Before the Op.
Feelings of tightness, short of pain, around the chest (left-hand side only) are beginning to disturb me a little. I think it’s muscular, associated with back-ache caused by too long leaning back on the iron mini-deck-chair on the bed, but I’m instructed to mention it to the GP when I see her on Friday, although what she can do about it is hard to imagine.
Exhaustion continues, of course — a given by now. Still, I mustn’t lose sight of those glimmers of progress. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better, and better…” Apparently it worked for M. Coué.
Last night I slept through without once having to get up because of pain or the more usual compulsions. Well, I was awake every now and then, but went back to sleep. Wonder if I can pull that one off again!
Friday 3 May: Feeling poorly again. Luckily have appaointment with GP to review progress (progress?) 10 days after the operation. After half an hour’s wait in the GPs’ waiting-room in considerable discomfort, the young Muslim woman next in line for the GP tells J that her husband (me) looks so ill that she’s willing to swop places and let us go in first. As I hobble in to the GP’s surgery on my crutches, sweating and struggling for breath, the GP looks horrified.
“I’ve never seen you so pale and grey before. Are you having chest pains?”
“Yes, among several other things.”
She helps me onto a treatment couch in the next-door treatment room, fastens an oxygen mask over my face and sends for an ambulance. Less than an hour later I’m being examined by a young and beautiful doctor in Accident & Emergency at St George’s Hospital Tooting, our big NHS teaching hospital, after a battery of tests and more oxygen in the ambulance. I’m moved along to the assessment ward. More tests of every kind imaginable. Finally, at around 10pm, I’m allowed to go home. None of the tests suggests that I have had or am about to have a heart attack. Another equally beautiful young doctor stresses that if my chest pains recur at any time, I’m to call an ambulance and come straight back to St George’s.
Saturday 5 May: After a good night’s sleep, I get up and almost immediately feel the familiar chest pains again. (Actually more tightnesws and pressure than pains.) Suppress awareness of this in hope that I’m imagining it. Eat some breakfast and sit to send a couple of long overdue emails when the awareness of the chest ‘pains’ forces me to admit to them to J. She calls an ambulance. The big yellow van fills the road outside our house in the Mews. 25 minutes of ECGs, blood tests, blood pressure tests, more oxygen, etc., in the ambulance before the young woman member of the crew drives off with us ensures that everyone in the Mews is aware of our mini-drama. Back to A&E in St George’s. Much longer waits this time before anyone examines me. Again moved to the assessment ward. More tests. Decision to keep me in overnight – to my releif, because much as I hate night-time in a hospital ward at the mercy of idle and tyrannical night shift nurses, surrounded by genuinely sick fellow-patients wailing, groaning and shouting fruitlressly for “NURSE!!!”, I don’t feel well enough to go home and know it would be unfair to J if I did. In fact, the nurses on the night shift on this occasion are pure Florence Nightingale, the few other patients are either to sensible or too unwell to make a sound all night, and having gratefully taken a powerful sleeping pill along with all my otherr pills, I fall almost instantly into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Sunday, 5 May: 2:10am: awakened by one of the Florence Nightingales hauling my arm from under the sheet to wind a blood pressure sleeve round it and take my blood pressure. After this I fail completely to go back to sleep and lie there in the semi-darkness wishing my wounded leg didn’t hurt so much.
4:30am: more tests. Find some paracetamol and take a couple of them. They don’t seem to have any effect on my leg pain.
6:00am: More tests. A peculiarly horrible breakfast arrives; eat a bit of it. More nurses appear. A phlebotamist comes to take a few more tubes of blood out of my arm, apparently on the orders of the cardiologists, a mile or two of corridor away. Am told that the cardiologists will decide by remote control whether to take me over for stress echocardiogram tests and if necessary an angiogram, or whether to say that in the absence of evidence from 10,000 tests of anything amiss with my heart, arteries, etc., they will advise my discharge (again). Am told to expect that The Team will arrive at any time to deliver their verdict. Sure enough, The Team arrives, led by a kindly and authoritative lady Professor and comprising four or five young women doctors all in visible awe of the Professor and scribbling down in their notebooks everything the Professor says. The kindly and sympathetic Professor asks me to describe exactly what has happened, which I do for the 35th time. She listens intently, then examines my chest and belly minutely. Her murmured commentary is faithfully recorded by her retiunue. Finally she tells me that there is no evidence of heart-related problems: that her conclusion is that the chest pains are muscular, probably related to the stresses of using the crutches, aggravated by borderline anaemia following the operation; that they will supply me with batteries of pain-reliever pills; and that once again I may go home. I have been added to the waiting-list for a stress Echo test which I will probably be invited back to undergo in four or five weeks’ time. With a gentle, humane squeeze of my hand, the charismatic Professor is gone, her retinue streaming behind her. A few hours later, loaded with innumerable boxes of pills and other medicaments, J and I are home, happy and utterly exhausted.
I had mentioned to the Professor the paradox (and my disappointment) that despite having been admitted twice to St George’s Hospital on suspicion of a recent or impending heart attack, and having spent many hours in the hospital’s excellent care, I had never one seen a cardiologist. The Professor agreed that this was disappointing and paradoxical. But apparently so many patients are admitted with chest pains that the cardios can cope only with those whose test results include specific symptoms suggesting a heart problem. None of mine did. Fair enough, I suppose.
Despite all these excursions and diversions, I’ve missed only one session of physiotherapy because of the chest pains scare: just as well, since the key to eventual recovery is evidently the intensive physiotherapy and hydrotherapy that prevent the damaged muscle and tissue surrounding the new artificial knee from hardening and forming scar tissue that would permanently prevent mobility of the joint and require a return to the operating theatre — back to square 1. An intolerable prospect! But the constant lengthy sessions of physiotherapy, the long arduous exercises performed on the bed, the floor or chair, the constant 30-minute sessions icing of the knee to reduce swelling, and the interminable time it takes to climb up or down stairs or pull on a pair of shorts or do anything else that normally takes seconds, add up toa surprisingly demanding routine.
Wednesday 8 May: Still feeling distinctly below par. Latest theory seems to be dehydration. I think I’m subconsciously afraid to drink much liquid because I know the more I drink after about 4pm, the more frequently I’ll be going to the loo during the night, each such expedition currently requiring a giant effort because of the knee, crutches, problem getting the wounded leg off the bed and onto the floor and later vice versa, plus other apparently trivial practical problems which loom large at 2:10am, 3:40am, 4:45am, etc. etc. Also drinking much of anything liquid makes me feel nauseous. Fortunately or otherwise I have absolutely no desire for alcohol in any form. (Nor for food, less fortunately.)
I really feel like an old man at last – not too surprisingly, considering that that’s what I am. It’s just that the operation has made me around ten years older. Anyway, all the medics promise that it will eventually become less swollen and less painful and that moving will become easier. Of course it’s possible that they are all lying…
Friday 10 May: Back to my GP to report on my hospital stays and review progress, if any. She is much relieved to see me looking reasonably well, in contrast to the old grey breathless figure whom she had despatched by ambulance to hospital the previous week. We agree that the absence of evidence of any cardiac event (so far) is welcome. The GP is sceptical about the need for some of the drugs prescribed and provided by the hospital when I was discharged. I share her scepticism and agree to stash them away unused, unless the situation changes. GP prescribes an alternative painkiller and a fresh supply of the most effective, somewhat addictive, sleeping pills.
Afternoon: another taxing session in the hydrotherapy pool at the (original) hospital. Standing on one leg, waist-deep in warm water, when the one leg is “the operated leg” (not supposed to be called “my bad leg”), proves unexpectedly painful and difficult. Showering and changing in the tiny dressing-room afterwards with another elderly gent who has had a hip replacement (kid’s play compared with a knee replacement, of course) we agree that it’s one of the great failings of medical science to be unable to offer an effective pain-killer that doesn’t also cause vile constipation. We also agree that it’s only when constipated that one remembers how ill and nauseous that condition makes one feel.
Get home exhausted but manage to write a few overdue emails before collapsing into bed. I take one of the GP’s sleeping pills and two of her new painkillers in the hope of calming down my aching leg — the operated one, which I insist is also the ‘bad’ one.
Saturday 11 May: Wake up at about 6:30 to the dizzy realisation that for the first time since my operation I have had a whole night’s uninterrupted sleep and that on waking up I detect no significant pain from the ‘bad’ leg. Joy! Six cheers for my GP! It’s probably a one-off success but it proves that it can be done.
Sunday 12 May: Paying a heavy price for the good night’s sleep of Friday night, produced by painkillers from the GP that contain codeine. Feeling ill and depressed all day. Forced to resort to laxatives again. Perhaps it’s better to put up with the pain and throw away the codeine — and the laxatives. But that’s not how I feel when the pain in the knee and thigh wake me up at 1:25am, 2:45am, 3:20am and so on until the radio comes on at 7:15am.
Monday 13 May: The mysterious chest pains continue but they seem to have become less frequent and less severe since I started using only one crutch, under the right arm, while indoors. This may suggest that the pains in the left-hand side of my chest have been either caused or aggravated by over-dependence on the crutch under my left arm, over-compensating for the weakness of the left knee and leg.
I have good days (and nights) and rather more bad ones; it’s too early to read any significance into either. I’m told not to expect any appreciable relief from the swelling and pain until eight to twelve weeks after the operation, and so far it’s only four weeks since I had it. They say that I should notice a further improvement six months after the op (which takes me to mid-October), and that after one year I should be virtually back to normal (April 2014). I suppose at that point I shall have to decide whether to have the other knee done as well, which will put paid to 2014-15 if I do. The other knee is apparently even more badly worn than the one that’s just been carved out. It will be an appalling decision. I prefer not to think about it.
Whether it’s a good day (or night) or a bad one seems to be at the whim of the gods, but also partly dependent on the state of the perpetual duel between the pain-killers and the laxatives, another impossible choice. Yesterday was grim; today has been a lot better. Tomorrow will probably be bad again. No long-term trend can be extrapolated from these random changes for the better or the worse. The medics all insist that the thing is taking its normal course and that it will all get gradually better over the next six to eleven months. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?
Thursday 16 May: After another bad and mainly sleepless night of pain and discomfort, a rather good day in which my mobility does seem to have improved and an ingenious cocktail of painkillers has largely silenced the swollen knee’s protests. Am now allowed to limp round the house without crutches (except of course when tottering up and down the stairs) and to go out of doors for walks with only one crutch instead of two. The swelling is obstinately resistant to vigorous physio massaging from calf up to groin, but I have to remind the physios that the leg was swollen (souvenir of a bad bike accident seven or eight years ago) even before the knee replacement operation just four weeks ago. It may be too much to hope that physiotherapy for the knee op now will restore the leg to anything resembling its condition eight years ago.
Feel entitled to celebrate improvement in mobility — I can actually bend the operated leg at a sharper angle than just a week ago, and can cautiously put some weight on it with only occasional buckling — although it’s far too soon to interpret it as the start of a process of release from pain, forecast for around a month from now at the earliest. Unfortunately when I received my initial visit from The Good Fairy almost 79 years ago, she forgot to deliver a ration of stoical patience among the package of virtues being distributed.
Friday 17 May: A stunningly good night, thanks to a single Zopiclone which had roughly the effect of being hit on the back of the head by a baseball bat. Unfortunately Zopi is somewhat addictive, although at my age…. Only begin to regain consciousness at around 10am. No doubt the leg was hurting like hell all night but I was blissfully unaware of it. Zopi 1, knee 0.
Extract from today’s report by J to friends:
Brian’s leg continues to be as painful as he had been warned it would be but his mobility is getting better and the leg is making good progress. He is still pretty knocked out by the experience. It’s no wonder that Mr F [knee surgeon] warned him a couple of years ago that if he left it too long to have the replacements he wouldn’t survive the operations. It’s obviously a very major shock to an ageing body. He has good days when he eats with some relish and looks more like his old self but, just now, after a session of hydrotherapy, he is absolutely down again. It’s going to be a long haul. But the New Yorkers [NYC-based daughter and two granddaughters of university age] are arriving on 3 June and we have various events planned during their stay involving the whole family so that should kill or cure.
Kind, solicitous and perceptive messages (and comments appended below) continue to arrive from good friends and much-loved relatives, many of whom have gone through much worse than anything I’m currently experiencing. I love to receive and read them and re-read them. Thank you profoundly for every one.
Watch this space!
This blog is on extended holiday while its owner is writing a book (of which more some time later). But it’s impossible to let Margaret Thatcher’s death pass without adding a few drops to the torrent of comment that has predictably inundated the country’s media, including a river of crocodile tears from a number of the prominent Tories who brutally deposed her when she was no longer electorally useful to them. It’s crude and unseemly to celebrate anyone’s death, but there’s an obligation on any self-respecting commentator, even a humble blogger, to try to tell the truth about the dead as well as the living. ‘Nil nisi bonum‘ is an irresponsible motto when it comes to judging public figures and their records.
For an assessment of her overwhelmingly negative legacy, it would be hard to improve on today’s Guardian editorial, here. It’s required reading: respectful, judicious and balanced.
However, it’s perhaps worth adding one point that’s easily overlooked, perhaps because it’s contentious. Mrs Thatcher’s ferocious assault on the power of organised labour, welcomed by many as a corrective to the excessive power of the unions but carried to unforgivable extremes of destructiveness, made a major contribution to the rapidly widening gap between the richest and the merely average earners in society. It was the theft of an indefensible share of the nation’s income by the top earners and owners of obscene amounts of wealth which steadily ate into the earnings of ordinary people and the below-average poor, forcing them to shoulder a growing burden of private debt if they were to maintain their standard of living, let alone to improve it year by year. The avaricious banks and other financial institutions were happy to go on lending even to the most obviously impecunious borrowers, and it was this (not just in Britain) more than anything else that eventually led to the banking collapse which in turn caused the steep recession that is with us still, six years later, now aggravated by the perverse and economically ignorant policies of Messrs Cameron and Osborne. But the origins go back to Margaret Thatcher and her deliberate destruction of the capacity of organised labour to defend its legitimate interests. It’s as if she consciously set out to demonstrate the kernel of truth in Marx’s perception of capitalism as containing the seeds of its own destruction.
The lady’s other attacks on many of the features of post-war Britain that had helped to bind us together in some degree of solidarity, rather than dividing us into selfish and greedy individualism, are well described in the Guardian editorial. It’s enough here to confirm that almost everything that Margaret Thatcher stood for, this writer finds abhorrent.
It’s only fair to add that on the two occasions when I came face to face with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister during my time in the diplomatic service, once when she came to Lagos for discussions with the Nigerian government, and once in London when I accompanied the then Polish foreign minister on an official visit, she could not have been more charming and friendly. During one-to-one meetings with her, she would ask me for my opinion on some current issue, and — in striking contrast to most other politicians great and small — she then listened carefully and without interrupting to what I had to say. I have it on unimpeachable authority, too, that in her relations with her own staff at No. 10 Downing Street, and again in contrast with some of her predecessors and successors, she was invariably kind, thoughtful, and solicitous of their and their families’ welfare.
Perhaps the main lesson to be learned from this extraordinary woman’s extraordinary career in public office is that we should beware of “conviction politicians”, so unshakably convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they are impervious to rational advice to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Some bloodshed and much human misery might have been avoided if it had not been for the blind obedience to their convictions of Margaret Thatcher — and of her later successor in No. 10 who in too many ways adopted her as his role model, Tony Blair.
David Cameron certainly seems to have got more than anyone (probably including himself) expected out of the EU budget summit. But before we all go overboard with the congratulations, we might register three churlish reservations. First, the UK contribution to the budget will actually increase, even if the reduced overall budget negotiated in Brussels is approved. Indeed, if the Commission makes full use of the concession that it secured from the heads of government under which it can vire spending between one year and another, enabling it to spend more in the first year or years of the budget period so long as it spends less thereafter, the UK contribution might well go up quite steeply in the first year or two. The Europhobes who dominate the Conservative party in parliament and the country won’t like that, and UKIP will hate it. Secondly, there are already warning signs that the European parliament may refuse to approve the budget. Thirdly, the reduction in the overall budget negotiated by Mr Cameron and his austerity-loving allies in northern Europe has been obtained at least in part by axeing EU infrastructure projects that are urgently needed to provide a stimulus to the stagnant economies of many EU countries. Keynes, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
It’s difficult to be optimistic about the chances of lasting improvements in the standards of patient care in numerous failing NHS hospitals in the wake of the sickening revelations about conditions in the Mid-Staffs Hospital Trust. There simply aren’t enough Florence Nightingale-type nurses and health-care assistants in the whole UK, even when extensively supplemented from the Philippines, the Caribbean and west Africa, with the fervent dedication and inspired motivation to provide the number of committed nurses needed by the enormous NHS. The only way to eradicate the negligence, indolence, arrogance and indifference to patients that characterise a huge number of NHS ward nursing staffs is to subject them to regular unscheduled and challenging visits by hospital doctors, including especially consultants, and by hospital managers from the chief executive down. Sadly, in my limited experience anyway, these exalted beings are very rarely to be seen on the wards except on the consultant’s ritual weekly rounds, escorted by a flock of terrified junior doctors and other hangers-on, when the courage of Achilles would be required by a patient daring to venture to complain about conditions on the ward and the deficiencies of the nursing. Revenge following the departure of the great man (or woman) and his or her retinue would be instant and terrible. The same applies to any hospital employee venturing to complain of shocking defects on the wards, either to his or her superiors in the Trust or by whistle-blowing to the media. Unfortunately the managers are mostly too busy filling in interminable forms for the Department of Health, or devising cunning wheezes to disguise their failure to hit the innumerable targets imposed on them, to spend time in the wards, observing and talking to patients and nurses; and the consultants are similarly too busy earning enormous fees from their spare-time private practices to spend a couple of hours each day on the wards checking on the welfare of the patients for whom they are supposed to be responsible. Of course there must be many laudable exceptions – surely there must be? – but there is too much anecdotal evidence of disastrous mistreatment of helpless patients in NHS hospitals to allow either satisfaction or optimism about the scope for real reform. Give men and women unaccountable power over others, and sooner rather than later it will be abused, as happens every day in our prisons, boarding schools and the armed forces, as well as hospitals. Having said all that, the NHS remains a precious national asset, and the latest revelations of what most of us knew already must not be exploited as an excuse for the programme of NHS privatisation by stealth on which the coalition government is clearly bent (in both senses).
At a time when the poorest and most vulnerable in our society are being reduced to homelessness and penury by the benefit cuts imposed by a government obsessed by the case for austerity and ideologically incapable of ensuring an equitable distribution of any genuinely necessary sacrifice, big business and high finance in Britain and elsewhere in the recession-ridden western world have more cash than they know what to do with. While the incomes of ordinary working people are being steadily eroded by inflation and cuts, those of the highest paid and the possessors of the greatest wealth are apparently casting around for investment opportunities promising the highest returns on capital, regardless of their longer-term consequences for society. Needless to say, such returns are rarely available on investment in socially useful projects that might re-inflate demand in the economy and restore some measure of prosperity to those who have been most badly damaged by the recession. Instead, unbelievably, the investment bankers are back at their old tricks, devising complex derivatives and selling packaged debts to each other. According to a front page report in today’s Financial Times, “Sales of securitisations such as asset-backed securities and collateralised loan obligations are now at a post-crisis high, as investors seek out higher-yielding securities. Many bankers are experimenting with new assets which can be bundled and sold to investors, as well as new deal structures.” Once again investors are buying packages of debts whose complexity makes the calculation of overall risk impossible, with the strong likelihood that yet more bubbles will be blown and blown until they burst, taking banks and investors down with them. We are back to leveraged (i.e. debt-financed) buy-outs, this week of Virgin Media and Dell Computers, the latter aiming to go private and thus insulated from the prying of regulators. It’s as if 2007-08 had never happened – for some. In the words of the song, when will they ever learn?
As usual, comments on this post are very welcome, be they approving, condemnatory or corrective. But please don’t send comments by email: write them in the comments box at the foot of this post. And this time, please don’t expect a response to your comment, however provocative it might be. Ephems will be at sea, literally as well as metaphorically, for the next few weeks, paying for internet access by the minute at exploitative rates. Your comments will be read from time to time, the ship’s satellite connection permitting, but answer will come there none. Emails and messages from this website may be read occasionally, but they will almost all go unanswered. This blog will have other, less important, things to do. Au revoir!
BB: Just back from Q Tarantino’s new film, Django Unchained, which (despite mostly horrendous reviews in the UK media) is actually splendid, but only if you enjoy Tarantino’s unique brand – sprightly horror comics with deliberate anachronisms and numerous jokes and cinema references, some obscure, but with an underlying moral purpose. Always beautifully photographed, accurately and wittily scripted and superbly directed and acted. The buckets of gore in the many shoot-outs are so over the top that they are clearly designed to be seen as symbolic, and the story is a concocted Western that’s also not meant to be taken seriously in itself: it’s simply not presented as a realistic documentary-type movie. The reviews in the Sunday Times Culture magazine and (more surprisingly) in the New Statesman are especially obtuse (one of them even complains that Tarantino’s script talks of people being ‘hung’ instead of ‘hanged’, which is too ludicrous a comment to be believed). The vague Wagnerian/Norse parallel, solemnly discussed (one of the characters is actually called a corruption of Brünnhilde!) is a typical Tarantino tease. Delicious.
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea by any means (J wisely didn’t go) and those disturbed by even the most artificially exaggerated depiction of fake violence on the screen clearly need to stay away, but anyone who enjoyed Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill will love this one. Brilliant music too, a reliable pointer to the intended mood throughout, highlighting satire, comedy, narrative, pathos, etc. And a terrific cast, mostly used in uncharacteristic roles. Tarantino has a small but flavoury bit part.
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MH: I’ve not been a great fan of Quentin Tarantino — but then it’s also true that I’ve only seen one of his films, Reservoir Dogs, which I failed to see the point of, despite the critical praise heaped on it. For my taste too much gratuitous revelling in gore and extreme violence for its own sake, not (for me) made more palatable by its being depicted in a highly stylised manner. I agree that he’s a skilful cinematographer. In view of your encomium, and in a spirit of open-mindedness, perhaps it is time to put my anti-QT prejudice to the test. C and I have been to see Quartet, which we much enjoyed despite its somewhat schmaltzy optimism about coming terms with old age (on second thoughts perhaps that’s why we liked it!). What’s known, I think, as a “feel-good” film. Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln looks to be worth seeing.
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BB: Thanks, MH. If that’s how you felt about Reservoir Dogs, I wouldn’t recommend that you visit Django Unchained. The point, to my mind, is that the violence in both films (and some others by Quentin Tarantino, though not all) is not ‘gratuitous’ at all, it’s central to what the films are about; that it’s always deliberately stylised, partly by deliberate exaggeration, so that there’s no danger of it seeming designed to exploit unhealthy appetites or to be disturbing – it’s in the tradition of certain kinds of wham-bang comics and other kinds of film and literature. The films are (among other things) about the reasons why people behave violently (rather a serious issue, especially in the US, where the issue of justified and unjustified violence is of course central to the national legend because it arose in such stark form during the conquest and settlement of the west) and the likely eventual consequences of violence, both criminally and idealistically motivated. The skill with which QT deploys humour, satire, cinematic references and jokes, music especially, discussions of moral and philosophical issues in deliberately anachronistic sophisticated language between unsophisticated characters, outstanding actors usually cast counter-intuitively and out of character, other anachronisms and social inconsistencies to relate the issues in the film to the experience of its audiences (Django when in his gunslinger cowboy role wears sinister sunglasses, for example, despite the antebellum setting), and abrupt, almost shocking, changes of mood and style, all to reinforce the points he’s making, seems to me outstanding, and I relish it.
Incidentally I saw Django Unchained at a downmarket cinema in a shopping centre in the early afternoon when cinemas are generally nine-tenths empty. On this occasion it was 90% full, and the audience watched all 165 minutes in rapt silence, forgetting their huge bags of noisy pop-corn and bags of sweets wrapped in crackling cellophane. It was almost literally stunning.
Before you dismiss Django Unchained as cynical exploitation, please read the review of the movie in the New York Times, here, (including the second page) which I think casts useful light on it especially in the context of American cultural forms on which Tarantino deliberately draws.
I should add that J entirely agrees with your comments on R Dogs (and on QT generally), is convinced that the depiction of violence in movies and on TV is sick (she won’t say whether this applies also to the eye-gouging in King Lear or the other violence, incest, etc., in the Oresteia) and that anyone, including especially me, who pretends to enjoy it or who makes excuses for it is sick, too. Another battle in Thurber’s War between the Sexes, I’m afraid.
Yes, Lincoln’s clearly a must-see. You’ll notice, if you read it, that the NY Times review of Django draws attention to the fact that Django U. and Lincoln are about the same issues at the same period (slavery and its cruelties, race relations and the costs of challenging institutional separatism, the effects of slavery on both slave-masters and slaves, the corrupting effect of slavery on some black people who come to identify their interests with those of their white masters, the way these issues remain relevant today, and so on).
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BB submitted the following letter to the Guardian Review (it was not published):
Violence in Tarantino films
Adam Mars-Jones (Roads to Revenge, Guardian Review, 26 January 2013) interprets Schultz’s unconvincing reassurance to Django in Django Unchained (that it’s all right for the latter to shoot a man peacefully ploughing with his son) as Tarantino’s endorsement of the reassurance: “the voice of enlightened common sense”. I read it quite differently. Surely the film’s theme is the moral corruption involved in unnecessary killing and other violence, whatever the motives of the killers and regardless of its nominal legality. Tarantino is suggesting a degree of moral equivalence between the slave-owners who casually kill their slaves on impulse, and the bounty-hunters who kill wanted criminals for money, even though both are acting within the law of the time. This is a theme that seems to me to run through many of his films. Mr Mars-Jones’s comparison with the Oresteia of Aeschylus is very apt. Schultz’s obviously flimsy reassurance, so far from representing “the voice of enlightened common sense”, is designed to remind us of the moral unacceptability of what he and Django are doing, entirely comparable with that of the slave-owners’ treatment of their slaves. The same point is made equally clearly in other conversations between Schultz and Django.
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MH: I enjoyed your letter on Mars-Jones’s review of Django Unchained and agree with its main point. Tarantino also presumably intends us to see some sort of redemption for Schultz when he shoots DiCaprio’s slave-owning plantation-owner in what might be seen as an act of altruistic violence, inspired by an instinctive upsurge of moral revulsion, in which he knowingly sacrifices his own life, thereby (if you like) disregarding the “voice of enlightened common sense”. (I liked QT’s touch in giving DiCaprio horribly stained teeth as the symptom of his inner moral decay. There is, after all, in the American canon no more avoidable or inexcusable defect than bad teeth. Is the generally poor quality of British dentistry, which Americans so often comment upon, one of the reasons why Hollywood so often chooses British actors to play villains, I wonder?) But what is QT saying, if anything, about the avenging violence used by Django, particularly at the end of the film, as a response to slavery? The depiction of violence – throughout the film, but particularly at this point – is so cartoonish (“sanguinary panto”, Mars-Jones nicely calls it) as to deprive it of any power to shock and to trivialise, and even negate, any more serious point either for or against it that QT is trying to make. Similar questions arise in relation to the Monty Pythonesque scene – extremely funny in itself – where the Klu Klux Klan posse fall out among themselves over the poor design of the eye-holes in their hoods. Ridicule is, of course, an excellent way of attacking great evil in men or institutions but more effective when the evil is still rampant (as, for example, in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator); less so when it has become a safe and easy target. So, for all the brilliance of the cinematography, the uniform excellence of the performances and the first-rate and often very funny script, I still came out of the cinema asking slightly bemusedly: Why? without being able to come up with any very cogent answer.
I see that Mars-Jones also has reservations about Spielberg’s Lincoln, which I don’t share. I’ll be interested to hear what you and J think.
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BB: I may be seeing Tarantino through rose tinted spectacle lenses, but I do think that there’s an often subtle purpose in everything he does, including the most unexpected and unconventional things. For example, I’m pretty sure that the violence in several of his films (which is what they are mainly about) is deliberately stylised (a) so that there’s no danger of it being pornographic, and (b) so that it will make a powerful impact but won’t be disturbing or overwhelming, and (c) to signal that the film doesn’t seek or pretend to be ‘realistic’, a sort of Brechtian message. I think that (c) also explains the startling and unexpected changes of mood (e.g. the pre-Ku Klux Klan gang whingeing about not being able to see through their hoods, which I thought was marvellously funny as well as making the rather humane point that some of the most brutal killers may actually be moral idiots or buffoons rather than deliberately evil malefactors); and (c) also explains the conscious anachronisms in some of the dialogue and also on the screen (Django’s shades being the most obvious example). The anachronisms serve to remind us that the action has sharp contemporary relevance (contrary to your own complaint – we haven’t exactly succeeded in eliminating non-state violence from our modern world!) even though set in a very different past: we’re not allowed to dismiss it all smugly as down to now discredited moral codes and the ignorance of the ancients. Some of the professional film critics have made themselves look obtuse by complaining about the anachronisms, as if they were careless mistakes.
A lot of the critics also seem to have missed the point I tried to make in my letter to the Guardian Review about the killings by the bounty hunters being very clearly depicted as almost as morally objectionable as the slave-owners’ killings and mistreatment of their slaves, despite both having been ‘legal’ at the time. This is fully consistent with your interesting suggestion that Schultz’s killing of the Leonardo DiCaprio character, which will obviously result in Schulz’s own death, is a kind of act of expiation and redemption. The fact that these are the commonest themes of traditional Westerns (Shane, High Noon, etc. etc.) simply explains why Tarantino chooses to portray the action as a Western, including some breathtaking sequences of riders silhouetted against the skyline, the Western costumes almost verging on parody, all saved by his obvious love of the tradition.
As for the revenge killings carried out by Django, they are surely part of the thesis about the (im)moral correspondence of bounty-hunter killings with slave-owners’ killing of slaves (aka “blacks” or “n*****s” in the film), but also about the philosophical ethics of all acts of revenge, a theme of drama going back to the Oresteia of Aeschylus (mentioned by Mars-Jones in his Guardian Review article but without Mars-Jones apparently recognising the implications of that acute observation as applied to Tarantino movies). As in the Oresteia, Tarantino discusses killings to avenge other killings, and certain kinds of private killings apparently in the public interest and within the law where the law is rudimentary, in a situation where there are effectively no state organs (police, courts, systematic law-based justice on behalf of society) to substitute for private action; action which by its nature leads to a never-ending cycle of violence and more violence, a kind of Omertà but where no systematic social alternative is available. Tarantino demonstrates the inevitable consequence of semi-licensed private killing (in revenge or “in the public interest”) by mounting the almost comically stylised scene of Götterdämmerung towards the end in which not only the main characters on both sides eliminate each other in a final murderous shoot-out, but also the whole building in which much of the action has taken place is blown sky-high, not a bad metaphor for total social breakdown in the absence of the rule of law.
I hope I’m not inventing these interpretations of what Tarantino is up to (J is unshakeably convinced that I am). I think it’s all there if you’re willing to see it – unlike those critics who complain that the characters are all (literally as well as metaphorically) black-and-white heroes or villains, that the violence is “gratuitous”, that the film glorifies it and never recognises its immorality, that it’s full of ridiculous anachronisms, that the symbolisms are simply down to incompetence, that it pronounces no moral judgement, even by inference, other than the insultingly obvious condemnation of slavery and racial prejudice (duh!), and that much of it is “unrealistic”! The last point at least is correct, but then so are Cézanne landscapes and Picasso still life paintings, plays by Oscar Wilde and Michael Frayn, musicals, pantomimes, operas and ballet. And Greek tragedy and comedy, come to that.
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VB: I loved it.
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MH: I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree about Quentin Tarantino and Django Unchained. There’s no dispute between us, I think, that he’s a supremely skilful film-maker, I just remain to be convinced that the subtleties and multiple levels of meaning that you find in this film are really there. Film buff friends tell me that I cannot form a proper judgement of QT’s work until I’ve seen Pulp Fiction – something of a cult movie for QT fans, it seems. I must try and repair that gap in my cinematographic knowledge at some point.
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BB: I agree that you need to see Pulp Fiction (especially), both ‘volumes’ of Kill Bill (of which I bought both volumes on DVD today for £5 from poor bankrupt HMV) and Jackie Brown before reaching any final conclusions about Tarantino. Everything he does has at least one purpose, often more than one, and it’s sometimes only afterwards that you realise what he was up to.
We saw Lincoln this afternoon. We thought Day-Lewis’s performance obviously masterly and the film had the gravitas that comes from dealing with events of huge significance and resonance, but without Day-Lewis (with whose half-brother I was at school, incidentally) it would really have been a pretty run-of-the-mill historical costume drama which had quite long periods that were frankly dull. I found myself yearning for some Tarantino fireworks, some technical dazzle and some intellectual challenge. Of course talking of Lincoln without Day-Lewis is like discussing Hamlet without the prince, but it’s perhaps fair to note that “apart from that, Mrs Lincoln”, there wasn’t a lot to it. It adequately explored the moral quandary – was Abe right to prolong the bloody civil war in order to get his abolition of slavery amendment through before permitting a peace settlement? – and Spielberg can’t be blamed for failing to suggest an answer (because there obviously isn’t one, which is why it’s not a terribly interesting moral problem). Lincoln discussed the relative merits of two obviously good but (arguably although not necessarily) incompatible causes, while Django Unchained discussed, much more subtly and far more entertainingly, the counter-intuitive moral equivalence of two bad types of violence, one of which laid unconvincing claims to virtue. All the other actors in Lincoln were perfectly competent – Tommy Lee Jones terrific as Thaddeus Stevens, I thought – but the whole thing came to life only when D D-L was on the screen and speaking. I thought it was a great mistake to include the assassination, which was dealt with so perfunctorily and which needs a film to itself to be done at all satisfactorily. In short, I agree this time with Adam Mars-Jones’s serious reservations about Lincoln despite recalling that you didn’t. In particular I agreed with A M-J about the unnecessarily portentous music of Lincoln. But it’s clearly a must-see movie mainly because of D D-L’s fantastic performance (surely a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar?) but also because it’s by Spielberg, whatever its shortcomings. Django was much the better and more interesting film, IMFFHO. We must just agree to disagree, at any rate until you’ve seen some more movies of QT.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3910, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it, but probably no illustrations or comments by others, unless what you want to say is purely personal. (Anyway, I’m away overseas for the next few weeks with only limited internet access, so I’m quite likely not to see your email comment if you send it as an email.) Thanks. Now read on….
MH: Thanks for the feedback on Lincoln. I’m glad that you shared my admiration for Day-Lewis’s mesmerising performance, as well as that of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, but sorry that the rest of the film left you underwhelmed. I agree that it was a tad too long, but I found it gripping none the less and certainly far from being a “a run-of-the-mill historical costume drama”. It was courageous of Spielberg to eschew (except in the powerful opening battle sequence) the action-packed fireworks that are his usual stock-in-trade and focus instead on the nitty-gritty of the political infighting in the months leading up to the passage of the 13th amendment. (In this respect it reminded me a little of Borgen).
It is true that appreciation of the film is enhanced by some detailed knowledge of the historical background, and of the contemporary party-political forces at play, and this may be a drawback for British audiences. I wish that I myself had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book before seeing the film. It is true that we cannot know what would have happened if Abe L had listened to those of his advisers who wanted him to give priority to ending the civil war, rather than to securing the abolition of slavery first, but this doesn’t seem to me to diminish the potency of the moral trade-off confronting him: the certainty of more deaths on the battlefield against the early ending of the vast injustice of slavery. Intuitively, I feel that Lincoln was right to think that abolition would have taken far longer to achieve had he chosen the alternative course some wished upon him, but of course that can only be speculation.
It would have been difficult to have made no reference to the assassination as that is probably the best-known fact about Lincoln’s life. Actually, the assassination itself is not depicted. Instead, we see Lincoln’s son at a theatre where the performance is interrupted when the curtain is brought down and a flustered manager comes on to announce that the president has been shot at another theatre elsewhere in town. I thought this was a rather subtle and economically oblique way of covering the assassination in a way that did not divert attention from what I took to be the main theme of the film: that in a democracy the political pursuit of even the noblest of causes – and there could hardly be a more unimpeachably moral crusade than the abolition of slavery – sometimes, perhaps more often than not, requires a great deal of less than edifying wheeler-dealing, cajoling, bribing, arm-twisting, threats, subterfuge and deceit plus a degree of ruthlessness to ensure success.
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David Cameron’s long-awaited speech of 23 January on the EU was certainly a game-changer. It was also a fraudulent and reckless gamble. It was a game-changer because it represented a dramatic shift in Cameron’s position: formerly, he had promised only a referendum to approve or reject such changes he might manage to make in Britain’s relationship with the EU. Yesterday he promised a totally different kind of referendum: whether to stay in the EU, or to leave it. At a stroke this has legitimised the head-banging Europhobes and brought them into the mainstream of British politics. The motives for this U-turn are obvious: to outflank UKIP and reduce its electoral threat to the Conservative party, to appease his back-bench Europhobes and the Europhobic media, and thus to create an illusion of party unity. It is also designed to wrong-foot the Labour party by depicting it as afraid to let the people decide on Britain’s future in the EU.
The speech is fraudulent, because its logical implications are the opposite of the real position. The one section of the speech which rang true was the peroration, powerfully setting out the case for Britain remaining in the EU. Cameron understands as well as anyone why Britain should remain in the EU. He knows that to leave it would be catastrophic for British interests. He plans to emulate Harold Wilson’s tactics in 1975 when Wilson, a much better tactician than Cameron, went through the motions of “renegotiating” the terms of Britain’s membership of the EEC, pronouncing the renegotiation a triumph, and holding a referendum on it which approved Britain’s continued membership by a margin of 2 to 1. The difference between then and now is that Wilson could predict reasonably accurately the referendum result that he wanted, namely to stay in. Cameron cannot possibly know now how a referendum in five years’ time would go. Everything would depend on how the EU evolves between now and then. Radical change is certain, whatever concessions the British government might seek, not because of British sabre-rattling but because of the measures that will be necessary to save the Euro, and the consequent need to work out a new relationship between EU members inside the Eurozone and those, including Britain, outside it. The negotiation of these changes will offer extensive opportunities for reforms of aspects of the EU regarded, not just by Britain but also by some other EU members, as unsatisfactory. It’s quite unnecessary for Cameron to make such a drama of this prospect, which will present itself whatever he does. Moreover, if these changes include transfers of powers from member states, including Britain, to the EU, Britain will have to hold a referendum on them under a UK law of 2011 accepted by all three main political parties.
The fraud is the pretence that Cameron is in favour of Britain leaving the EU unless he secures a series of ill-defined concessions, and that he will campaign for Britain to leave the EU in five years’ time if he has failed to secure those concessions – the unavoidable implication of his EU speech yesterday, which he dares not explicitly acknowledge. The gamble is the promise of an in-or-out referendum in five years’ time, whose result could well be disastrous for Britain. Even in the almost inconceivable event of Cameron retrieving from Europe all the powers and competences that he wants to bring back, it must be obvious that any gain for Britain from such concessions cannot possibly be of such significance as to determine whether or not Britain stays in the EU. That issue is far too momentous to be decided on such inherently marginal grounds. (The gamble is the more reckless because of his apparent disregard for its likely effects on the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum in the autumn of next year, making the disintegration of the UK under Cameron’s premiership just that bit more likely.)
Labour now confronts two challenges, one difficult, the other more straightforward than much of the media seem to recognise. The difficult challenge will be to make the case against the repatriation of the powers which Cameron and the Europhobes want to get back from Europe. Labour needs to convince a sceptical public opinion that subjects such as the environment and the prevention of crime are best handled jointly on a European basis, not by each EU state individually, and certainly not by Britain on its own with the rest of Europe acting together. There may be a case for changes in the criteria for executing the European arrest warrant, but there is no possible case for abolishing it, still less for Britain alone to opt out of it. Even more significantly, Labour has a plain duty to oppose Cameron’s demand for a British opt-out from the controversial working hours directive and other EU regulations designed to protect the basic rights of employees throughout the EU. In particular, Labour, the Lib Dems and the unions should collaborate in opposing a UK opt-out from the regulations that prevent employers sacking their workers without the need to state a justification. Some business leaders in Britain would love to regain the power to hire and fire their workers at will – a licence to sack people on racial, gender or sexual orientation grounds without acknowledging them, or simply on a whim. Labour should expose this Tory ambition as exploitative, unfair and retrograde, supporting those in Europe who may be expected to resist any such opt-out for Britain on grounds of giving one member state an unfair competitive advantage over the rest, as well as on general grounds of workers’ basic rights. Similarly, in seeking to ditch the working hours directive, Cameron shamelessly acts as the spokesman for the most unscrupulous of Britain’s bosses, and Labour should hammer away at exposing him in that role. The directive is an essential protection, not only for workers who might otherwise be forced to work unreasonable hours, but also for the public, whom the directive protects from (for example) flawed medical care by over-worked and exhausted junior hospital doctors.
The more straightforward challenge for Labour is to defend its opposition to an in-or-out referendum, either on the timetable proposed by Cameron, or at any other time determined years in advance. Currently there is no change in Britain’s relationship with Europe so significant as to justify a referendum which would risk having such potentially harmful consequences. To predict that in five years’ time changes will have occurred so significant as to require a referendum is absurd and arrogant. The decision on a referendum can only sensibly be taken in the light of circumstances at the time. Meanwhile, the legal requirement for a referendum if and when there is a proposal to transfer further powers from Britain to Europe is more than enough to protect our interests. Labour can perfectly well stick on this position, while exposing Cameron’s reckless promise as motivated purely by party political considerations and not by any calculation of the national interest.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3899, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of this new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks. Now read on….
One interesting and revealing postscript: It is widely forgotten that on 9 December 2011 Mr Cameron returned from a summit meeting in Brussels boasting that he had bravely defended British interests by vetoing an EU treaty, on the grounds that the rest of the EU had refused to satisfy the conditions he had laid down for refraining from exercising his veto. These conditions amounted to a series of demands which were mostly unconnected with the subject matter of the proposed treaty. In fact, our prime minister had not vetoed a treaty at all: there was no draft treaty in existence for him to veto. All he had done was to try to prevent the rest of the EU from using the Commission and other EU organs and facilities for the negotiation of a new treaty designed to impose more discipline on the Eurozone. In practice this shabby attempt was easily circumvented, and the only effect of Cameron’s attempted blackmail was to ensure that Britain alone was virtually excluded from having any input into the negotiations leading up to the new treaty. (The sad and shameful tale is related in more detail in an earlier post on this blog, here: it’s well worth reading.) If that episode is a reliable indicator of Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills, and of the integrity of the account of his actions that he offers the British people, Labour should have no great difficulty in exposing the fraud, recklessness and ineptitude of the new Tory strategy for Europe, and the reactionary character of its real aims.
The publication of the 2013 New Year’s Honours List reminds us (or should do) of how unsatisfactory the whole honours industry has become, and of the need to decide what the next Labour government ought to do about it.
The latest list (PDF), issued by the Cabinet Office and covered nowadays only very selectively by most of the media, is 109 pages long, starting with Lord Coe (made a Companion of Honour for running the Olympic Games), and ending with 24 pages of recipients of the “Order of the British Empire: Medallists of the Order of the British Empire“, including “Shirley, Mrs WILLIAMS, For services to Music, the community in West Wales and charitable services” — Mrs Shirley Williams BEM must have earned her award twice over for having to endure a lot of confusion over her identity. (More later about these mysterious “Medallists of the Order of the British Empire“.) The 109-page main honours list doesn’t include the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List of honours, another eight pages of awards, from a KCMG for the Director of GCHQ (“His leadership of GCHQ has been transformational, adapting the organisation to meet the challenges of the ‘cyber age’ and moving the organisation’s focus to be at the heart of the UK’s prosperity and national interest agenda”) to the award of the ‘Overseas Territories Police and Fire Service Medal For Meritorious Service‘ to one Ms Elizabeth Gomez, Constable, Royal Gibraltar Police — along with a CMG for HM Ambassador to Spain (Jeremy Paxman‘s baby brother, no less) and an MBE for a former Entry Clearance Manager, UK Border Agency, British Embassy, Kuwait, “for services to UK prosperity” (seriously!), among many others.
There’s still more: the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games list, the New Year Honours List 2013 – Higher Awards, a Departmental List, and a “Departmental List (Citations for D/KCMG recipients)”, the Military Division of the new year’s honours list, Police Honours – England and Wales, and The Queen’s Fire Service Medal, not to mention awards in the Queen’s personal gift, such as the GCVOs and lesser gongs for members of the royal household and others who have earned the special appreciation of the Palace. According to the Cabinet Office website, 1,068 candidates have been selected at BEM, MBE and OBE level, 286 at BEM, 535 at MBE and 247 at OBE. 72% of the recipients are people who have undertaken outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity. There are 572 successful women candidates in the List, representing 47% of the total. Women candidates include 13 Dames, 40 CBEs and 2 CBs. 5% per cent of the successful candidates come from ethnic minority communities. And this is just one New Year’s list: there’ll be another, the Queen’s Birthday honours, in June (yes, Her Majesty’s birthday is in April, but never mind). So multiply everything by two for the annual rate.
Those 286 British Empire Medallists (BEM) are of special interest. Unlike the 535 MBEs, they are not members of the Order of the British Empire, but they are nonetheless “affiliated with the Order“, whatever that’s supposed to mean. According to Wikipedia, the British Empire Medal had not been used in the United Kingdom or its dependencies since 1993, but was revived in 2012 with 293 BEMs awarded for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Presumably someone thought that was a good idea at the time. “In addition, BEM is used by the Cook Islands and by some other Commonwealth nations”!
It should be obvious that the whole thing has got completely out of hand. Most of those given the highest awards are honoured for becoming very senior in the organisations or sectors for which they work — in other words, for doing their jobs and being successful at them. These people — top bankers, industrialists, civil servants and diplomats, sportsmen and sportswomen, dancers, conductors and actors — are already being rewarded by promotions, generous and rising salaries and prize money or bonuses, high status in their own professions and in some cases the achievement of national or international fame. An appearance in the honours list is just icing on an already fairly rich cake. What does Andy Murray’s derisory OBE add to his Olympic gold medal and his Grand Slam victory?
The problem about abolishing honours for achieving prominence by doing the job for which they are being paid boils down to the demands of precedent. If the Chairman and Chief Executive of The British Pins and Needles Company Ltd has been knighted, and all his predecessors going back a hundred years have similarly been knighted, there’s a natural expectation that his successor, Mr J Doe, will automatically feel the tap of the Queen’s sword on his shoulder, arising from his knees as Sir John, soon after assuming his high office. If he remains plain Mr Doe after a couple of New Year and Birthday honours have passed, questions will be asked and suspicions voiced, around the water coolers at BPNC and in the Athenaeum lounges: is there a skeleton in old John’s cupboard? How has he blotted his copybook? — and other such clichés. Yet poor Mr Doe is quite likely blameless, his copybook entirely unblotted; he’s just one of many victims of a largely arbitrary and capricious system.
Similarly, if Her Majesty’s British ambassadors to Tsetseland have invariably been made knights of the realm, either before or soon after their arrival in that country, but a newly appointed ambassador arrives as a Mister and stays that way for a couple of years, the government and people of Tsetseland will begin to feel that they have been short-changed: either they and their country are no longer regarded in London as sufficiently important to HMG to warrant representation by a Sir, or the new ambassador is a person of unprecedented insignificance, which comes to the same thing. Tsetselanders will write to complain of their downgrading to government ministers in London, perhaps also to the Queen; visiting British ministers and minor royals will be button-holed sotto voce at receptions and dinners about what the Tsetse people have done to deserve this (literal) dis-honour? Some will even discreetly express their sympathy to HM ambassador himself over his supposed humiliation. Sooner or later someone in London will ask why such questions and complaints should be endured when there’s an easy solution ready to hand that costs hardly a penny of taxpayer’s money: give the fellow a K, for God’s sake, whether he wants it or not!*
Thus the system has several defects. It is arbitrary and capricious; attempts to make it more consistent by following precedents simply make the lists progressively longer, more inconsistent and more unmanageable (the most conspicuous examples of this being awards to sportsmen and sportswomen, where proliferation has resulted in some hurtful anomalies). It is offensively class-based: the various ranks within each Order correspond closely to social status, sharpening divisions in an already class-conscious and hierarchical society. It causes endless embarrassment: few people understand its arcane ramifications, and even fewer know the rules about addressing someone with ‘Sir’ mysteriously attached to his name, either in writing or face-to-face; ‘Dames’, with their pantomime undertones, present even more obviously insurmountable problems. The system combines two wholly different categories of honorands: people who have got near to the top of the greasy pole in their jobs and main activities, and others who have genuinely rendered devoted service to their communities without ever receiving much, if anything, in the way of official recognition, still less reward.
None of these defects is beyond remedy, although their solutions may seem too radical for the obsessively centrist parties which currently govern us. Only Labour is likely to take seriously proposals for sorting it out, without simultaneously destroying elements in the system which are worthwhile and deservedly popular. Here is the outline of a possible six-point programme of reform:
1. No one should be given an honour for being successful in the job for which they are paid or in the activity in which they primarily engage, and in which there are plenty of other forms of recognition in terms of promotions, high salaries, bonuses or prize money, status and fame.
2. Honours should be given to recognise exceptional service to the recipient’s community, local, regional, national or international, going beyond the requirements of the person’s job and normally irrelevant to it, in circumstances where there is no other obvious form of reward or recognition available.
3. With very few defined exceptions, no more knighthoods or damehoods should be awarded. The handle ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ in front of the recipient’s name is divisive and embarrassing. Knighthoods should in future be given only to men and women of real and exceptional distinction who are no longer active in their former fields and whose achievements have significantly benefited the country. No knighthoods should be awarded to any person whose decisions, policies and judgements in their working lives could possibly be perceived as capable of having been influenced by hope of a knighthood or damehood after retirement.
4. Each Order should have only one rank, indicating ‘membership’: no more distinctions between holders of the MBE, OBE, CBE, KBE and GBE; no more Commanders, Knights Commander, Knights Grand Cross and the rest. The statutes of the Orders should be revised so as to eliminate implied conditions for membership such as adherence to a specific church or religion or set of political or social beliefs. A study should be made of the possibility of reducing the number of Orders to a maximum of three, perhaps fewer.
5. In any case, the Order of the British Empire is long overdue for renaming or burial, for obvious reasons. The mysterious revival of the British Empire Medal is surplus to requirements and it should be put back in the cupboard.
6. Consideration should be given to the possibility of preserving the existing systems of specialised honours, such as those in the personal gift of the monarch and those awarded to the military, police and fire services, subject to there being no more knighthoods or damehoods in any of these.
Of course holes can be picked in these suggestions, which are offered purely for discussion and refinement. But I would hope that their basic thrust might be acceptable to a party of the centre-left.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the end of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3888, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks.
*Full disclosure: some readers of this may well feel entitled to think, or say, that I’m a fine one to make such suggestions, arguably an example of someone already aboard calling for the ladder to be pulled up behind him. To such critics I can only plead that it is partly because of my own experience in the field that I want to see it reformed.
The Financial Times unaccountably published, prominently, an article on 8 December 2012 provocatively headed: The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime. Its author was Ambassador James Francis Dobbins, Jr., according to Wikipedia an American diplomat and former United States Ambassador to the European Union (1991–93) and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (from 2001, the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush). He has served as US envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia, and is head of international and security policy for the RAND corporation.
Ambassador Dobbins advanced several predictable and familiar arguments for western military action against President Assad’s admittedly odious régime. He acknowledged that such intervention would be most unlikely to be authorised by the UN, as required by the Charter, because of Russian and Chinese objections (he might have added, but didn’t, that those objections would be reinforced by their experience of the way NATO abused and exploited the limited UN authority granted, with Russian and Chinese acquiescence, for intervention against Gaddafi in Libya).
Mr Dobbins argued, however, that western military intervention in Syria could be legitimate under international law, even without the authority of the UN Security Council, on the basis that: a. western powers could recognise one of the insurgent factions in Syria as its government and then respond to its appeal for help under its right to self-defence, as recognised by the Charter; or b. they could cite the precedent of Kosovo (where NATO bombed Yugoslavia for months without UN authority); and, apparently in the same breath, c. they could ”assert what is now an internationally recognised responsibility to protect a population from abuse by its own government.” (The ambassador wisely refrained from capitalising the term of art, Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, which has a very specific and well defined meaning as a new principle of international law.) The Dobbins article also d. made a glancing reference to Libya.
These proposed arguments for the alleged legitimacy of military intervention in Syria without UN authority were all breathtakingly phoney, as should have been obvious to anyone with the most superficial knowledge of international law in general and the Charter of the United Nations in particular. I submitted the following letter to the FT:
Sir, As a former US envoy to Kosovo, Ambassador Dobbins (The West must intervene to finish the Assad régime, 8 December) must know that –
- it was US-Russian-Finnish quiet diplomacy, not the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, that ended Serbian control of Kosovo; that the NATO bombing, never authorised by the UN Security Council, contravened the Charter and was technically a war crime, whatever its motives, and can’t therefore be quoted as a precedent to legitimise western intervention in Syria without UN authority;
- and that the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) put forward by Ambassador Dobbins as an alternative source of legitimacy for a Syrian intervention itself requires action in the Security Council under the agreement at the 2005 UN World Summit which approved the R2P principles, some of which don’t apply to the Syrian situation anyway.
- The suggestion that we should legitimise intervention by “recognising” one of the Syrian opposition factions as the government and then responding to its appeal for help under the right to self-defence would entail twisting the criteria for recognition and provide a precedent for similarly slippery behaviour by others anywhere in the world (anyway Britain recognises countries, not governments).**
- Finally, Libya is not a helpful precedent, since the bombing had UN authority (however much NATO then abused it), which the Ambassador rightly recognises would not be available for a Syrian intervention; anyway the Libyan intervention has hardly proved to have the outcome we sought.
The unavoidable conclusion must be that armed intervention in Syria, necessarily without Security Council authority, would be illegal in international law and thus a war crime. The closest parallel would be Iraq, the one recent intervention that Ambassador Dobbins understandably doesn’t mention.
Brian Barder (HM Diplomatic Service, 1965-1994)
8 December 2012
The FT subsequently published two letters rebutting different aspects of Ambassador Dobbins’s case, but mine was not one of them. I think, though, that the gaping holes in all his arguments for claiming international legality for yet another western military intervention in the middle east, after the disastrous failures of all such interventions in living memory (and Suez is within mine) deserve to be placed on the record. Hence this post.
When an experienced senior diplomat, occupying a prestigious post in a distinguished American think-tank, can publicly advance such a shabby case for a course of action in Syria so likely to be doomed to failure and ignominy, we should cease to wonder how the catastrophic and criminal enterprise of the invasion and occupation of Iraq came about, even though (as we now know) the experts in international law in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office warned in advance that it would contravene the UN Charter and amount to the crime of aggression.
**A very senior retired British ambassador privately commented to me on the suggestion that the western powers could “recognise” a Syrian opposition faction and then respond to its appeal for help under its “right to self-defence”:
An argument used mutatis mutandis by scoundrels regularly. eg the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“Scoundrels” looks about right.
It’s striking but sadly predictable the way almost every media commentator on the affair of the ‘prankster’ Australian DJs and the tragically dead nurse have missed the main point: namely that a hospital, any hospital, housing any patient, should be the very last target of choice for a hoax telephone call (‘hoax’ being a more accurate description than ‘prank’, with its implication of harmlessness). The DJs can’t reasonably be expected to have known that their hoax would end in tragedy, and their recent television interviews, tearful and obviously wracked with grief and remorse, evoke almost as much sympathy as the family of the deceased. The vitriolic reactions of sections of the UK press and the Twitterati do our country no credit at all, and the demand that “heads must roll” is sickeningly out of place. The DJs should be left alone to rebuild their lives — and their careers in radio.
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Each time this website and blog have celebrated the long overdue abolition, principally by a bravely liberal Ken Clarke, of IPPs (the truly vicious system of Indeterminate Sentences, imposed for less than the most serious offences, a toxic blend of preventive detention and undeserved life sentence), the celebration has turned out to be premature. The Act of Parliament providing for abolition hit the statute book on May Day, 2012, and we celebrated. The it transpired that the abolition clause of the Act didn’t come into force until a date to be set by the Justice Secretary. At last the date for that was set: 3 December, 2012. That day duly came, and we celebrated. Hang on, wrote a contributor to the blog: some judge has just handed down two more IPPs, on 5 December! Hasn’t anyone told him? Now it turns out that the 3 December cut-off date applies not to the date of sentencing but to the date of the offence! So there are still probably hundreds — perhaps thousands? — of people charged with a variety of offences allegedly committed before 3 December 2012, for example in connection with the widespread riots in England in August 2011, who have not yet been sentenced (although the reason for such delay is incomprehensible): so all of these, if convicted of offences for which IPPs were once prescribed by law, are liable to be given Indeterminate Sentences, not just now, a good eight months after IPPs were abolished, but way into the indefinite future. Clearly this is no time to celebrate after all. A heavy responsibility consequently rests on the Justice Secretary, now Chris Grayling, to clean up the nightmarish way in which existing IPP prisoners, all 6,000 plus of them, are currently grossly mismanaged and almost never approved for release. [PS: But now see up-date, below.]
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A warm welcome to this blog to any readers who have come here via that distinguished journal Password (only you will know what I’m talking about). If you, or anyone else, would care to use the ‘Subscribe’ facility somewhere up near the top left of your screen, you’ll get an automatic notification by email every time there’s a new post here (contrary to appearances it’s free, and you can subscribe under a nom de plume if you wish, so long as you provide a genuine email address — which won’t be made public). Those who have already subscribed can easily unsubscribe, too, if they wish, although I hope you won’t. It doesn’t take long to press Delete if the notification of a new post doesn’t look interesting. Meanwhile Zag (retired) sends his best wishes for a happy, er, holiday season.
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I have commented in another place (actually in the aforementioned Password) on the wretched, worn-out, threadbare cliché “fall on one’s sword”, meaning “resign” and adding absolutely nothing to that straightforward word. Now those misguided hysterics clamouring for the wrecking of the careers of the Australian hoax-calling DJs are demanding that they “walk the plank”. It’s just about understandable that there should be so many euphemisms for the d-word (“pass away”, “gone to meet his Maker”, “lost”, and so on), but who nowadays has a mental picture of anyone falling on his sword (not an easy thing to set up, one might think) or even walking the plank? Perhaps the series of films depicting Pirates of the Caribbean is to blame for the latter, and even, who knows?, for the former.
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One of the many tragic victims of the coalition’s illiterate “austerity” programme and its primary attack on the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable in society seems likely to be the Beveridge principle of universality of benefits, which has hitherto been central to the whole idea of the welfare state. Beveridge stressed that if all those in society who could afford to do so paid their premiums in taxes and National Insurance contributions to a virtual state insurance scheme which spread the risks of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, ill-health and incapacity, across the entire population, those suffering any of those insured risks would be entitled as of right to the appropriate benefit, just as anyone making a valid insurance claim is entitled to have it settled. Thus we may all go to our GPs for our flu jabs or to be referred to a specialist, free of charge, whether we are paupers or millionaires; no-one suggests that those who can afford private medical care have a duty not to use the NHS. But the government’s increasing stress on need instead of entitlement as the criterion for benefits, and its callous claim to the right to reduce benefits in real terms, year by year, as well as capping some of them and abolishing others, corrupts the Beveridge principle of universality and so undermines the very foundations of the welfare state to which all major parties once subscribed — until Thatcher and Blair came along. The very idea that Labour might contemplate actually voting in favour of this outrageous programme of indiscriminate cuts to benefits (for which the vast majority of recipients have paid with their taxes and NI contributions), and demonisation of the poor, is beyond parody. Where is the dilemma?
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It’s not easy to explain the almost universal addiction to the two current television thriller series Homeland and The Killing. Both are almost incomprehensibly tortuous — even my wife has to turn to the online reviews next day to find out what has happened, and then to explain them to me — and both seem to take place almost entirely in the dark, with only torch beams waving up and down to show that the television set hasn’t broken down. Both involve wild improbabilities: in Homeland, the hero (or anti-hero) walks around the streets of Washington DC and other cities unrecognised and unapproached, without any kind of personal security, despite being a Congressman, a candidate for the Vice-Presidency and a supposed “national hero” widely celebrated on national television. Yet the programme is the very definition of compulsive viewing. Partly it’s because of the superb acting by everyone involved (in the case of Homeland, including by the large British contingent, all with apparently impeccable American accents); but perhaps more strikingly it’s because of the moral complexity and sophistication of both series, with deeply flawed principal characters, mixed motives everywhere, and no automatic distinction between right and wrong behaviour or between goodies and baddies. The repeated statements of motivation and almost of justification of terrorism in Homeland, with its savage denunciation of the murder of innocent civilians by bombing from an American drone, are truly astonishing for a popular American television programme. Full marks to both series for telling it pretty much the way it is in real life.
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Update and correction: I have just been authoritatively informed that the 3 December cut-off date for IPPs applies not to the date of the offence, as I was previously led to believe, but to the date of the conviction — which would normally, I suppose, be very near to the date of sentencing. If that’s correct, we should indeed be close to the last IPP to be handed down. A very tentative but heart-felt ‘hurrah!’, if so.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3871, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks.
There are several possible explanations for David Cameron’s (and other Conservative ministers’) hardening objection to Lord Justice Leveson’s “essential” proposal that the new, press-initiated, independent and voluntary regulation of the press should be “underpinned” by a new law formally validating the new régime and guaranteeing press freedom from state control. The most obvious explanation, although not necessarily the right one, is that the prime minister lacks the backbone to stand up to the still-powerful newspaper proprietors and the right-wing press, or to his own Conservative libertarian right wing, nearly all of them noisily denouncing any idea of a law and insisting, against Leveson’s clear contradiction, that any law will amount to state regulation of the press – Stalinism without the charm. Another explanation is that Cameron genuinely believes that any law, even if it explicitly guarantees the press’s immunity from state control of content, will in practice turn out to be so complex and detailed that it will indeed amount to state control, as most of the press and some of his party colleagues claim to fear. Yet another, the one on which he seemed to lay most stress in the debate on Leveson in the house of commons, is that even the most innocuous under-pinning statute would be vulnerable to authoritarian amendment by some future illiberal government and parliament. This seemed, and seems, to me the most implausible of the lot:
The PM’s main “misgiving” about Leveson’s recommendation of a new law to underpin an independent press regulator reflects his fear that such a law could be amended or replaced by some future illiberal government in such a way as to infringe the principle of freedom of the press. But that danger must be much greater if there is no law already on the statute book that guarantees press freedom and the independence of the regulators than if there is. Leveson makes an irrefutable case for statutory backing for the new independent regulatory body he recommends, and which he stresses does not equate to statutory regulation. Parliament should clearly accept and act on it.
(Guardian, 1 December 2012)
Sir Brian Leveson envisages that the under-pinning law that he proposes would constitute a bulwark against state regulation of the press, not an instrument of it. Sir Harold Evans, perhaps the most distinguished British newspaper editor of our time, has remarked that the manifestly ‘free’ American press operates under the protection of just such a law – the highest form of law, namely the First Amendment to the United States constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
On the other hand, some American commentators, including the sainted Bob Woodward, one of the two reporters mainly responsible for unmasking President Nixon over Watergate, have been expressing horror at the idea of any UK law affecting the press, claiming that under the First Amendment any such law would be unconstitutional.
The latest bizarre twist in the dispute is the Culture Secretary’s promise to draft and publish a Bill based on the Leveson proposals. The Bill’s declared purpose will be, not to present a government proposal for parliamentary legislation, the usual purpose of a government Bill, but the opposite: a document expressly designed to demonstrate by its reach and complexity that no such law could be made acceptable. If the government, or the Tory part of it, goes through with this weird exercise, it will be up to the Labour Opposition (which supports the Leveson proposal) and the LibDem members of the governing coalition who also support an under-pinning law, to amend the government’s deliberately flawed Bill so as to demonstrate that it can be made acceptable and effective without seguing into what could amount to state control.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, one Maria Miller MP, promoted a few weeks ago from her former invisible role as Minister for Disabled People at the Department for Work and Pensions, has made numerous universally unimpressive appearances on radio and television since the publication of Leveson, loyally denouncing any idea of an under-pinning law while constantly repeating in the same breath her mantra that the government fully accepts all the “principles” laid down by Leveson, apparently unaware that the two propositions are mutually incompatible.
Finally, today’s Financial Times reports that Ms Miller is convening a meeting of leading newspaper proprietors and editors next week at which she will urge them, not to draw up a plan along the lines proposed by Leveson for an independent press regulator, as they are invited to do by Leveson, but instead to devise an alternative to the Leveson blueprint! Apparently the prime minister’s and his Culture Secretary’s ‘acceptance of all the Levenson principles’ has some far-reaching limitations.
There are evidently some lacunae in the Levenson report: his unwillingness to condemn at all forthrightly either the suspicious failure of the police to investigate and prosecute the widespread criminal activities of British journalists, or the potentially corrupt relations between leading politicians of both main parties and some of the mightiest press magnates: the absence of clear guidance on how to regulate those press publishers who opt not to sign up to the new (voluntary) independent regulatory régime; and the failure to address the over-concentration of press ownership in too few, often non-British hands. Then there’s the thorny question of the impossibility (thank goodness) of regulating the internet with the wild excesses of the social media and the blogosphere. But Leveson has given the press and parliament more than enough demanding tasks to be getting on with. It’s sad that the coalition’s Tory members, whose leader once promised to accept and act on Leveson’s recommendations unless they turned out to be “bonkers”, are already rejecting key elements in them, inviting the press once again, for the seventh time in as many decades, to regulate themselves without having to answer to any form of external, independent but non-state supervision, in the pitiful hope that this time self-regulation will eliminate the gross excesses and misbehaviour which up to now have disgraced substantial sections of the fourth estate. Up with that we should not put.
On 10 February 2011, Jack Straw co-sponsored a resolution in the House of Commons condemning the European Court of Human Rights for declaring Britain in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by depriving almost all prisoners of their right to vote. Recently, Yvette Cooper, Labour shadow Home Secretary, also committed the Labour opposition to support for the ban on prisoners voting. If, improbably, I had a chance to debate the issue with Jack Straw, our conversation might go something like this:
BLB: Mr Straw, in February 2011 when you spoke against restoring to any prisoners the right to vote, all you did was recall that whenever parliament discussed the issue, it always came down in favour of the ban. You didn’t attempt to justify it: why?
JS: It’s obvious. Anyone who commits a crime loses the moral authority to vote.
BLB: That was an argument used by the Labour government in 2005 in the European Court to justify preventing prisoners from voting. But the European Court found that a prison sentence couldn’t automatically remove a person’s other unconnected rights apart from the right to liberty. There are many who behave in an antisocial manner – tax evaders, for example – but who aren’t in jail: should they be disqualified from voting too? Once the right to vote is made conditional on a citizen’s morals, as defined by the state, you erode a basic foundation of democracy. Universal adult franchise should mean what it says: all adult citizens have the right to vote and the state has no right to remove it from any arbitrarily selected category of people, however obnoxious and unpopular they might be.
JS: Deprivation of the right to vote is part of the prisoner’s punishment, as enshrined in UK law.
BLB: But that just describes the present situation: it doesn’t justify it. Anyway, what kind of punishment is it? Are you seriously suggesting that the threat of losing one’s vote deters people from committing crimes? Or that losing one’s voting rights assists rehabilitation, or discourages re-offending?
JS: It’s clear from the opinion polls, and reflected in many votes in Parliament, that public opinion would be deeply offended if prisoners were allowed to vote.
BLB: Yes, I remember David Cameron saying that the thought of “giving” prisoners the vote made him physically sick. But the European court stressed in its judgement that there was no place under the Convention for automatic disfranchisement based purely on what might offend public opinion.
JS: Maybe so. My main argument in the 2011 debate was that this should be a matter for the British parliament, not for any international court. The judgment against us was purely a matter of interpretation of the Convention: there is nothing in the Convention explicitly giving prisoners the right to vote.
Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at http://www.barder.com/3849, not by private email. For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post and giving the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal. Thanks.
BLB: But when parliament voted to set up the European Court, it accepted an obligation to abide by its judgements, including interpretations of the Convention. We can’t pick and choose between the Court’s rulings, complying with some and ignoring others. We should champion the rule of law.
JS: Well, I suppose we shall eventually have to do something to comply with the judgment of the Court, such as giving the vote to prisoners serving very short sentences for minor offences. But for most of us even that will stick in the gullet.
BLB: You talk of “giving” the vote to some prisoners, but the right to vote is not yours to give. All prisoners have that right in a democracy: you are taking it away, and you still haven’t offered any justification for doing so, except that not doing so would stick in your and David Cameron’s gullet. Don’t you see that allowing, indeed encouraging, all prisoners to vote could be quite an important element in their rehabilitation and reform, by bringing it home to them that even in prison they are still citizens, with both important unconditional rights and equally important obligations?
JS: As I pointed out in the 2011 debate, I have never heard of any prisoner complaining about losing the right to vote. I doubt whether any but a tiny percentage of prisoners ever voted before going to jail, or are likely to vote after they come out.
BLB: All the more reason to include the duty to vote in the re-education of prisoners to be good citizens on release. Here is a classic example of the Labour Party in Parliament – One Nation Labour just like New Labour – failing to stand up for the rights of one of the most vulnerable, underprivileged and voiceless sections of society, obviously because it fears being labelled ‘soft on crime’ by the tabloids and the Tories. Isn’t it time that Labour gave a lead to public opinion, instead of pandering to the most primitive and reactionary elements in it?
JS: Look, you seem to forget that I am a qualified lawyer, and a former Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor (among other high offices) in a Labour government that won three elections running. What are your qualifications for contradicting me on a legal and political issue like this?
BLB: Sir, indeed I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t regard this as primarily a legal question. I think all prisoners should have the vote, regardless of the European Court. Even if Parliament has to restore voting rights to a limited category of prisoners, and even if that satisfies the Court, I don’t think it would go far enough. I still haven’t heard a single argument for depriving any prisoners of their right to vote. As a lifelong Labour supporter, I am dismayed by Labour’s position on this.
JS: You’re entitled to your opinion. I have more important things to do than continuing this fruitless conversation. I have New Labour’s legacy to defend against the occasional assaults of my good friend David’s young brother. Goodbye!
Footnote: I have placed on my website a short paper providing a selection of references to documents and quotations from them relating to the issue of prisoners’ right to vote and the judgment against Britain of the European Court of Human Rights. This is at http://www.barder.com/notes-on-the-question-of-prisoners-right-to-vote.