Cummings is not getting his Johnson out any time soon: on the decline of British democracy

Johnson

There’s a lot of things Boris Johnson doesn’t like: monogamy; consistency; telling the truth; Paddies… particularly smart Paddies; “picaninnies with watermelon smiles“. But since he became Prime Minister it has become clear that more than anything else Johnson detests scrutiny. Foghorn Leghorn is less chicken than Johnson faced with evidence of his lies, duplicities and stupidities.

Of course this would be fine in a totalitarian society. You know: one that does not have a parliamentary system like the one Johnson has just decided to shut down. There Johnson would make a passable Mussolini, or a Ceausescu at a pinch.

But it is a terrible problem in a society that is meant to be democratic: in such societies the executive are meant to be accountable to the citizenry through parliament, and citizens can only fulfil our responsibilities in the system if parliament is functioning and we know what is going on.

This is what Edmund Burke was getting at in 1787 during a parliamentary debate on opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons. Then he refered to the press as the “fourth estate, thereby alluding to the vital role they had in ensuring that the people of a nation knew what was afoot with their government.

Cummings

So one can at least see consistency when, in addition to shutting down parliament, Johnson and his minion Dominic Cummings establish a policy of refusing Channel 4 News and BBC Newsnight requests for interviews. Just like House of Commons select committees, these are the few remaining places in the UK where Johnson and his spectacularly dim ministers might get asked hard questions. Like: It’s just that you really don’t care if bloodshed returns to the British border in Ireland, isn’t it? Or: How many ruined lives would you deem as too many for a proper British Brexit?

You might think that voters have a right to know Johnson’s answers to such questions. But understand it from his point of view. Honest answers would make him look bad. And, as Eddie Mair showed, he really isn’t a good enough liar to blag his way when faced by a competent interviewer.

No! It’s better for Johnson if he just bunkers in and avoids the nasty hard questions that make him look like the callous eejit that he really is.

Johnson’s hero Churchill may have eschewed the safety of the bunker during crises, but there’s no reason why Johnson should. After all, its not like Herman Goering gave interviews to to the Manchester Guardian when he was also trying to trash British democracy.

Given this, it would probably not cut much ice with Johnson or Cummings to remind them of what that smart Paddy President Jack Kennedy once said:

“there is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and… even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.

Such ideals are not to be allowed in Johnson’s Airstrip One. Here “ignorance is strength”, and that is how the tinpot have always liked it.

Churchill, by Roy Jenkins

Summary: Churchill – both a hero and a villain

321F9220-5CD0-49CB-9EC9-689E793FD92FIn Brexit Britain one’s attitude towards Churchill is something of a faux-patriotic touchstone. Recently shadow chancellor John McDonnell caused frothing indignation amongst the perpetually offended right-wing of British society when in response to a silly question, “Churchill: hero or villain?” he responded, “Villain,” citing Churchill’s behaviour, when Home Secretary, towards striking miners in Tonypandy.

Of course, one of the reasons that Churchill attracts so much biographical attention is that he is a complex figure.

Considerable portions of Churchill’s career, most notably his resistance to Nazism, are the epitome of heroism. At a human level he was also very funny and impressively magnanimous. For example, he formed a close friendship with Smuts, who he had fought against, and been imprisoned by, in South Africa. Jenkins also suggests, probably correctly, that Michael Collins would have become an enduring friend if he had lived, and one can only regret the consequences to Anglo-Irish relations that he did not.

But other aspects of Churchill’s character and leadership are markedly less attractive. For example his deep grained racism and his unreconstructed imperialism are manifestations of the very worst aspects of British history and society.

That these positive and negative elements resided in Churchill simultaneously, for example catastrophically worsening the Bengal Famine in 1943 while playing a central role in formulating strategy against Hitler, makes him an altogether more interesting and problematic personality than either his acolytes or his detractors might prefer.

Roy Jenkins’ biography of Churchill goes a considerable way towards exploring this complexity across the course of Churchill’s career from youthful imperial war-junkie, to young Conservative MP, to Leftish Liberal cabinet minister, to rancidly bigotted opponent of Indian independence, to prophetic voice against the rise of Hitlerism, to heroic war leader and after. Jenkins also details Churchill’s parallel career as a voluminous writer, a career that ultimately brought him a, somewhat controversial, Nobel Prize for Literature.

There are omissions – there is no discussion of the Bengal Famine – the gravest stain on Churchill’s record, dwarfing even his civilian bombing policy against Germany, his startlingly naïve fawning towards Stalin, and his complicity in the betrayal of Poland to Soviet tyranny, all issues which Jenkins discusses in some detail,

It is very much a political biography focusing on Westminster and Whitehall machinations, and the deliberations of high summitry amongst the “Great Powers.” So it would probably benefit a reader to have some extant knowledge of events in the wider world as they affected ordinary human beings, particularly the struggle for Indian independence, the course of the Second World War, and the Suez crisis.

The book is enriched by Jenkins’ insider knowledge: his early parliamentary career overlapped with that of Churchill; and before rising to the presidency of the European Commission Jenkins was also British Chancellor and Home Secretary, two posts Churchill also held.

Nicholas Soames, currently a Tory MP, tells the story of how, as an eight year old he once intruded on Churchill with the question, “Grandpapa, is it true you are the greatest man in the world?”

“Yes,” said Churchill. “Now bugger off.”

Ultimately Jenkins shares this conclusion, that Churchill was the greatest human being ever to hold the office of British Prime Minister. It is perhaps an easier assertion for a Briton to make than for any citizen of a nation that suffered the bloody consequences of his racism to accept. But Jenkins certainly provides a rich portrait of this compelling personality, one who did so much to shape the Twentieth Century, particularly in relation to the triumph of European democracy.

The Future of the SDLP

img_1542The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) of the North of Ireland has always been a coalition. There are folk in the SDLP who, if they were living in Dublin or Cork or Galway, would be in Fianna Fáil, or Fine Gael, or Labour. But, faced with an existential challenge around the issues of civil rights and peace, they coalesced into a movement that sought to advance the ideals of social and liberal democracy in the face of horrific violence and sectarianism. Such coalitions are significant in history: Both the African National Congress in South Africa, and Congress in India drew together similar diverse elements in the common cause of liberation.

For myself, if I was living in the south of Ireland I would be Labour. But that does not mean I have any less respect for comrades and compatriots from different political traditions who have, with empty hands, faced down the authoritarianism of both the Provos and the British Government to create a peace process out of the nothingness of thought and compassion. It is they, more than anyone, who have, on the streets of Belfast and Derry and Newry and every other town and village in between, brought about the peace process when so many others turned their faces away from the fratricidal bloodshed.

Many southern leaders have also made extraordinary contributions to this struggle for peace and civil rights in the North of Ireland. Sean Lemass, Justin Keating, Garret Fitzgerald, Peter Barry, Dick Spring, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Aherne, Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar, and Simon Coveney are amongst the most prominent of these leaders and I believe and hope they will be properly honoured by history.

But all of these apart, perhaps, from Sean Lemass, have been guided by the collective wisdom and experience of the SDLP. The SDLP, while consciously standing aside from the political disputes of the 26 counties, have forced the ideal of a new Ireland – one uniting Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter within the framework of an united Europe – back onto the political agenda of the whole island even in the bloodiest and most sectarian moments of our recent history.

This remains a vital and unfulfilled ideal.

There may be a time in the future when the SDLP should break up into the different Irish traditions of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, or, preferably, contribute to a fundamental realignment of these elements into clearer conservative and progressive formations.

But today, with Brexit and the disfunction of the British state again threatening war in Ireland, is not the day for that reckoning.

The SDLP is a vital independent voice for social democracy in the islands of Ireland and Britain. It must remain so.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, by James Comey

934BEFDC-77C1-44A6-9EC2-6397DDDBEBF8Summary: a meditation on ethical leadership illustrated with war stories from Comey’s life as a prosecutor and his interactions with President Obama, and the moral and intellectual void that is Donald Trump. 

In the heyday of The Two Ronnies one regular, celebrated, segment involved Ronnie Corbett sitting in an armchair and telling a joke. This was never a straightforward affair. It involved Corbett taking every available digression and tangent upon the way before getting to the punchline, which he always landed neatly on at the end of the monologue.

Parts of James Comey’s book are a bit like that. There is a broad chronological structure to the book, particularly in the final chapters dealing with his time as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under President Obama, and Trump. But there is a strong thematic element to the earlier chapters, drawing on diverse parts of his life – from working in a grocery store, to his experiences with bullying, to the tragic death of his son – from which he draws what he believes are crucial aspects of ethical leadership.

It is the last chapters that will sell the book – and Comey does, rather satisfyingly, land a few punches on the bloated, bullying, pathetic Donald Trump, who Comey likens to some of the Mafia bosses he helped put in prison. But there is also a more serious purpose to the work – his meditation on ethical leadership – and it is this that may give the book a more enduring appeal long after Trump has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Comey writes on the second page of this book, “Doubt… is wisdom” and his discussion of some major ethical choices that he has had to deal with over his career in government go some way to illustrating this truth. These include various hard cases of obstruction of justice, confrontations with Dick Cheney over torture, and, of course how he dealt with the notorious case of Hilary Clinton’s emails, something that, when added to the systematic Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, probably cost Clinton the presidency.

Across the course of the book Comey shows how even with matters of enormous moment, perhaps particularly with them, leaders often have to act under pressure with limited information, and frequently their choices boil down to trying to discern the lesser of two evils. This reality will probably resonate with anyone who has ever led anything.

Comey notes that given the stress involved in leadership that humour and laughter are essential, not only for a release of tension but because they are indicative of self-awareness and humility. Hence he is rightly unsettled that Trump appears a completely humourless creature. For himself he makes a few wry remarks and self-depreciating jokes, but he is no Ronnie Corbett. However he is a lucid, and sometimes compelling writer, frequently highly insightful on the subject of ethical leadership, unfailingly gracious in his treatment of those he has worked with, and with some exceptionally interesting stories to tell.

Comey is a highly experienced prosecutor and he presents a strong case in defence of his choices in the course of 2016. Still, while he continues to believe the choices he made were the best he could have managed given the circumstances, he describes feeling sick at the thought that they may have contributed to the election of Trump.

Still, by way of compensation, he suggests that it was his release of a memo of a private meeting with Trump, in which Trump appears to have attempted to obstruct justice, that led to the appointment of a Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, his FBI predecessor, to investigate the allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. So, while Comey may have played an unfortunate role in bringing Trump to the presidency, he may yet also have played a decisive role in removing him from it.

PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F Kennedy, by William Doyle

Summary: A gripping war story that gets to the heart of important truths about both war and Jack Kennedy

In 1945 John Ford made a cracking war movie called “They Were Expendable” about the exploits of a motor torpedo (PT) boat unit, including, of course, John Wayne, defending the Philippines against the Japanese onslaught.

The thing about the movie though, was that the capabilities of the PT boat therein portrayed were horseshit. The PT boat was a lousy weapon. Its torpedoes were close to useless as, due to technical flaws in their design, they rarely hit their targets let alone detonated. Few of the PT boats were equipped with radar though they were expected to fight in the darkest of nights. And these mahogany constructions were sent into conflict against much more heavily armed and steel armoured destroyers. This was only slightly more hopeful, in military terms, than sending a mime troupe to attack a panzer division, to borrow from Milan Kundera. Indeed in this book William Doyle notes that of the three confirmed sinkings of major ships by PT boats during the Second World War, one of them was American.

This was the branch of the Navy that Jack Kennedy, millionaire son of the former US ambassador to the Court of St James’s and best selling author of Why England Slept, joined in the Solomon Islands in 1943. It made him president.

Dave Powers, a friend and aide to Jack, once commented that, “Without PT 109 there would never have been a President John F Kennedy.” The legend of Jack’s fortitude and leadership following the sinking of his boat during a small battle in which 15 ill-equipped PT boats were sent to ineffectually attack a convoy of Japanese destroyers, was the foundation upon which Jack’s political career was built. But the story of this relatively brief episode in Jack’s relatively brief life is more important for a number of reasons, not least, after over half a century of muck raking and character assassination, it has proven pretty close to impossible to tarnish this truth of his heroism during those days.

Certainly it has been tried. Doyle notes the simmering accusation that it was Jack’s incompetence as a boat skipper that led to his boat being sunk, the only PT boat to have been sunk by ramming during the course of the war. However Doyle’s account of the ill-conceived battle in which the sinking occurs offers evidence that this is an unfair charge and that it was ill-luck on Jack’s part exploited by an imaginatively aggressive Japanese commander, Kohei Hanami, that led to the sinking. Later Kennedy, in a comment that gains enormous retrospective poignancy, noted his thoughts just before the moment of impact: “This is how it feels to be killed.”

He didn’t die then and went on to play a decisive role in saving the lives of his surviving crew. Doyle notes: “The longest Olympic swimming event staged before then, the men’s 4,000 metre freestyle race, was held only once, in 1900. Fourteen of the twenty-eight competitors… “did not finish” and the distance was promptly retired. On the afternoon of August 2, 1943, John F. Kennedy covered the same distance, plus a mile more, over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight…All the while he bit on a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously … leading nine other men.. towards safety… it was an astonishing feat his crewmen never forgot.”

Once rescued with the crucial help of courageous Solomon Island scouts and an Australian Coastwatcher, he refused the option to return to the States but remained in the combat zone for months more. During that time he helped save the lives of 10 more Americans before ill-health forced him home.

For all his other flaws, these events, and those of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, more starkly than any others, show the greatness at the heart of Jack Kennedy. Indeed, it was almost certainly his experience of the chaos of warfare in the Solomons that stiffened Kennedy’s moral courage to face down the hawks in his administration and save the world from nuclear annihilation during that Crisis.

PT 109 is a gripping book about war, endurance and a young man leading in the most horrendous of circumstances. Would that there was someone with the qualities that Jack Kennedy displayed then in the White House today.

A Selfish Plan to Change the World: Finding Big Purpose in Big Problems, by Justin Dillon

img_1203Summary: a self-help book like no other I have read, concerned with identification of personal purpose, and giving some important insight into contemporary slavery

I must begin with a declaration of interest: Justin Dillon is a pal, someone I got to know and like over beers and years in the margins of conferences and meetings in different parts of the world.

Justin’s warmth, enthusiasms and likeablity come through strongly in this book, which is part memoir, part reportage, part philosophical treatise.

The book begins, rather disconcertingly, with an account of a performance by the Clash in Dublin. This inspired U2 to become who they are, who in turn inspired Justin, an accomplished musician, to change direction to become the filmmaker and anti-slavery activist that he is today. I think Joe Strummer would be pleased by that.

It is an important book in a number of respects. First of all at a time when much of the global discourse on slavery focuses simplistically on the minority of cases that relate to organised crime, Justin shows with illustrative cases from Haiti to Ghana to India that slavery is a complex issue of power, poverty, human rights and international development, not simply one of law enforcement.

Given this, a further theme of the book is even more apposite. This is the importance of purpose. Even before I got to the section in which Justin discusses Victor Frankl I was reflecting that the book could be considered as an application in the field of activism of Frankl’s remarkable work on humans’ search for meaning. Justin discusses how the lack of resources and power that impoverish so many across the world, their “poverty of means”, is echoed in the “poverty of meaning” in the lives of so many who in other respects seem wealthy. His “selfish plan to change the world” then relates to addressing this poverty of meaning by engaging those who lack purpose with the challenge of empowering those who lack means. In honour of Joe Strummer he exhorts his readers to find their “riot,” the struggle for justice that they they wish to be part of.

Justin describes the book as a “self-help manual”, but I doubt there are many other self help manuals like this, because it is one with a profoundly social purpose. Justin recognises that in order to change the world we may first have to change ourselves, and he shows the desperate needs that still exist across the world that demand we all look beyond ourselves.

Jefferson, Hamilton and moral courage in the struggle against slavery.

Excerpt from a lecture to Gresham College, London, 23 Feb 2017

To this day political figures across the globe covet the title “the new Wilberforce”, in recognition of the towering role that he played in efforts to bring the trans-Atlantic slave trade to an end. This, perhaps, shouldn’t be too surprising. In any given age there are no shortage of people who feel that slavery is wrong.

But, as Batman teaches us, it is not what we feel, but what we do, that defines us. So, anyone who dips their toe into the slavery debate today with dreams of future glory should be aware, that if they lack the necessary moral and political courage, they may become merely “a new Jefferson” rather than a “new Wilberforce”.

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was one of the great geniuses of his age and a declared opponent of slavery. Some of his writings on the subject were described by contemporaries such as John Adams, the United States’ second president, as being more valuable than diamonds in the anti-slavery cause. And yet the vision of the American Republic that he offered was impossible without slavery, and as President he did nothing to end slavery save for a mealy mouthed assertion that it was a task for later generations.

That argument may have comforted him as he sat in his study on his Monticello plantation in Virginia overseeing his own enslaved children. But it was not an argument which impressed Jefferson’s contemporary Alexander Hamilton, who sought, as the United States’ first treasury secretary, to put his anti-slavery convictions into practice by establishing an economic system that would reward free labour over slavery in the hope that that would erode the slave economy and hence end the brutal system.

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Alexander Hamilton

While that did not directly bring an end to slavery in the United States the economic system Hamilton put in place did ultimately provide the North, under Lincoln, with the economic capacity to crush the South and obtain the legal abolition of slavery half a century after Hamilton’s own death: So if Lincoln is the Father of Emancipation in the United States, I would argue that Hamilton is its Grandfather.

And in spite of his incredible gifts Jefferson did not confront the fundamental systems and institutions of slavery when he had the most power to do so. And across the world we see that still.

It will perhaps be a matter for comment by some future historians that at this shameful period of European history some of the most vocal European leaders on the issue of slavery have been noticeably negative with regard to the formulation of an effective pan-European response to the refugee crisis.  It is the absence of this, more than anything else, which has contributed so much to increasing the risks of human trafficking to Europe from the wars of the Middle East. Furthermore the xenophobia and prejudice that have been allowed to poison the political environment against migrants have further betrayed the struggle against slavery by increasing the opportunities for violence and exploitation.

It is a hard lesson of history, that when the moral courage of political leaders fails in the face of prejudice and vested interests, it is almost always the vulnerable who are the ones to pay in the bloody routine of violence that ensues. And, as was true in the days of Jefferson, it is not rhetoric but moral courage that defines leadership and shapes the history of the times.