Quick Note: Turning Against the Doctors – the Government’s Biggest Strategic Mistake Yet?

Anyone who has either a member of the NHS or a medical student as a Facebook friend is likely to have learnt two things yesterday: the imposition of a new contract on NHS junior doctors and just how deeply unpopular- indeed reviled- that contract is. A little digging and listening  to British Medical Association representatives also reveals that this whole struggle between the BMA and the government is to do with much more than just junior doctor contracts. It is also informed by underinvestment in the NHS and the privatisation of NHS services, both of which are the result of (broadly ideological) austerity.

None of us can predict the future and foresee whether the imposition of a contract over which the BMA (who have first-hand experience of practicing in the NHS) has already vowed to fight the government (who almost wholly don’t) will become emblematic of this Conservative administration or fade away from public memory as it is snowed under by the next extreme and damaging policies invariably around the corner. For the most part, however , I’m inclined to think that it will have a lasting impact, and has been a very strange fight for the government to pick.

Barely anyone viscerally cares about vulnerable welfare claimants, struggling immigrants or low-paid public sector workers who are all too easily coloured as the people ‘proper businesses’ didn’t want to employ. It has been easy for the government to cut away at their livelihoods and for people to engage in very dubious moral gymnastics and cognitive dissonance to defend such action. After all, people , especially voters, who are far more likely to hail from wealthier backgrounds, come into meaningful contact with those actually affected by the Bedroom Tax or the increased income threshold for migrant spouses.

However, we all come into contact with doctors. We all get sick, and most of us are likely to have required/require an operation or have been/be present at the delivery of a child. The quote from Nigel Lawson that the NHS is “the closest thing that the English come to a national religion” is well-known, and even Katie Hopkins in her bizarrely obfuscatory and wildly inaccurate column on the doctors’ strike acknowledged the personal debt she has to the NHS. Nearly all of us owe a huge amount to the whole NHS, including the junior doctors who work tirelessly and endlessly (far more than the apparent saviours of our economy, the bankers). Attacking the lynchpins of our hospitals with a contract that will stretch them to the limit, not to mention lower their morale, is hardly likely to curry favour with the public. Just wait until the first deaths as a result of exhaustion occur.

Secondly, doctors are the people that especially the middle-classes, the bastion of democratic expression, meet on a regular social basis. They are there, down the your suburban street, at the tennis club or at the craft ale stand at the village fete. They are seen as one of the prime traditional ‘community actors’, respectable and educated, motivated and intelligent. People respect the opinions of doctors, and the ones to whom doctors are disproportionately likely to be offering their private opinions are fellow educated, middle-class, classically Tory-voting friends.

You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and the government strategically should know better than to attack uniformly well-respected members of communities up and down the country. It seems more than likely that, if attitudes such as those which the government is exhibiting continue until 2020, we will see the junior doctor, the young professional with an intense university education and secure career prospects, putting in a vote for parties who are the Tories worst nightmare.

The Second World War Is Our Past, Not Our Present

Milkman blitz.jpg
Photo Credit: Reddit

I was only a young boy when Winston Churchill was voted “The Greatest Briton” of all history by an adoring public, and at the time it seemed perfectly natural. Even today, over five decades since his death, he towers over this nation, dominating our collective psychological landscape for one simple ‘reason’: he led us to victory during the Second World War.

Never mind his appalling overseeing of the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War that left 46,000 Allied soldiers dead, his (egregious) brutality and racism whilst conducting colonial affairs that led one peer to claim “Winston only thinks about the colour of their skin” or his support for the forced sterilisation of swathes of the British public. All that mattered to average participant in the vote was the Second World War.

If there is one thing that is fused to the British cultural landscape like burnt rice to the bottom of a saucepan, it is the Second World War.  There is no “Don’t Mention The War!” in our vocabulary of common reference points; it’s all Dad’s Army and Keep Calm And Carry On instead. When German exchange students visited my school- we were about 15/16 years old at the time- they were asked if they “had ever heard of a Spitfire” and people shouted “Heil Hitler” at them before running down the corridor in an act of cowardice nearly as embarrassing as the previous deed. The refrain “Two World Wars and One World Cup” is recognisable to us all.

If I haven’t laboured the point enough, I invite you to occasionally look at the comment sections to online newspaper articles. The further right-wing the better. There will be someone talking about the War in some way, clamouring that our forefathers didn’t charge onto the beaches of Normandy only for ‘po-faced liberal civil servants’ to tell us that we can no longer sell Gollywogs or some other highly contentious melange of bollocks and bullshit like that. Frustratingly, I cannot find the article amongst dozens about the terrible flooding in the North of England and Scotland this winter in which a woman decided that their conditions were akin to those during those long 6 years of conflict. Expect more of the same with the upcoming referendum on EU membership (an organisation by which we proud and courageous Britons are inextricably tied to those formerly aggressive Krauts and pathetically yellow-bellied French, of course).

The legacy of the Second World War amongst the British people is remarkable and yet rarely scrutinised. It is both sad and odd that we revel in a conflict that claimed the lives of 55 million people, witnessed the most heinous act of systematic genocide in history and claims the unenviable prize of the only war in which nuclear weapons have been actually used. We, in our sanitised stupor, seem incapable of coming to terms with the fact that, whilst many a brave Londoner did huddle on the platform of Piccadilly Circus, so many others were pulverised or incinerated in their own homes. Nor was everyone gallant and patriotic: criminals thrived in the chaos of the Blitz and the Blackout was a perfect environment for attempted sexual assault. It is safe to say that none but the most bellicose or questionable would want for us to return to a time like that, and, were such a dreadful episode to happen now, then we wouldn’t suddenly all be cheerily donning tin hats and gas mask boxes, ready for another round of being the ‘plucky underdog’.

Nonetheless, so many of us, especially those who never saw a day before 1945, believe that our victory (which definitely had more to do with the US, USSR and the heroic efforts of all occupied nations) marks the political, cultural and moral zenith of our nation’s history. Our ‘Finest Hour’. Aside from the xenophobia and awful politicisation of the sacrifice of so many lives towards often irrelevant and trivial political ends that this opinion has caused, our persistent gaze to those heady days when windows were criss-crossed with sticky tape and place names painted over has helped manufacture a narrative of decline from the moment peace was declared. We don’t celebrate nearly enough the abolition of the death penalty, decriminalisation of homosexuality, the Equal Pay Act or creation of the welfare state, because these events happened as people grew soft, fat and corrupted- not at all like back in 1940 when men were men, everyone spoke English and people took responsibility for their actions. And, as a result, institutions that objectively are of much greater benefit to our national livelihood, such as the NHS, are under threat whilst the rose-tinted memories of slaughter and hardship remain sacrosanct.

No one is saying that we should be ashamed of the Second World War, or that there were not thousands of acts of courage, humanity and kindness as the world was engulfed by terror and bloodshed. However, it is time that we seriously review whether those 6 years are really the watershed moment of the British nation and its people, the moment that we showed the best of who we are as a nation. War should define neither our global outlook nor our notions of identity to the extent that it currently does, especially when it is patent how insular and arrogant the perspectives that it informs often can be. There are plenty of khaki uniforms and decommissioned rifles in museums across the country and, whilst we may regard them with venerable respect and thanksgiving for the dedication of many who once owned them, it is in a museum and not the baggage of our everyday national consciousness that they belong.

Dead Cats and Pigs

Credit: The Daily Mail
Credit: The Daily Mail

“There is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on a dining-room table… everyone will shout ‘Jeez mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!'” summised Boris Johnson when discussing Lynton Crosby’s ‘dead cat strategy’ during the 2015 election. The principle is that saying or doing something outrageous will draw unwanted attention away from the politically damaging, pushing real debate into obscurity. During the run-up to May 2015, this took the form of Michael Fallon’s blistering and excessive attack on Ed Miliband in which he claimed that the would-be Labour Prime Minister would “stab the United Kingdom in the back”. Fallon’s comments were delivered a day after Miliband pledged to crack down on tax-evading non-doms, a policy which had real potential to appeal to Middle England. The Daily Telegraph, perhaps sensing the tactic, amplified the grotesque diversion of this dead cat by making Fallon the feature of their cartoon in the comment section the next day. As a result, Labour never made the impression on the public that it had hoped to with its anti-non-dom policy.

Only yesterday, it was revealed that the free school meal programme, initiated as one of the first social reforms of the Liberal Government under Asquith, will be rolled back in the upcoming spending review being conducted by the Treasury. This will undoubtedly leave many of the poorest students in the country, who already on average lag behind their wealthier classmates, hungrier and with a further limited capacity to learn during their crucial years of schooling. You do not need to be a bleeding-heart liberal to see how destructive and counter-intuitive this particular cut is, especially at a time when tax credits, which prop up the incomes of impoverished working families, have also just been condemned. However, the acts of David Cameron that everyone is talking about are not those inflicting further hardship on the poor and indirectly limiting social mobility, but the fact that he once drunkenly put his genitalia into a pig’s mouth and smoked cannabis with James Delingpole. It’s politically irrelevant- this is the kind of thing that taps into the public’s imagination of what students get up to- but it’s humorous and captivating and has nothing to do with the agenda of the current government. If anything, it could bolster the public perception of Cameron by giving him a Boris-esque lively outrageousness that the electorate adores.

The biography which reveals these roguish deeds is being written by Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott. Even if the former is no longer a Conservative Party peer, he is unlikely to ever want to see the likes of Jeremy Corbyn in office, and neither is the former Political Editor of the Sunday Times. Delingpole, who informed Ashcroft about his recreational drug use with Cameron, is a right-wing journalist who most certainly holds a similar opinion of the new Labour leader. Given that Corbyn’s primary attack on the Tories during his first week of leadership is that they are “poverty deniers“, the cutting of free school meals and tax credits offers the perfect starting plot on which to begin building the anti-Tory narrative. In distracting everyone with these revelations, Ashcroft, Oakeshott and Delingpole have successfully undermined any foundations which Corbyn and his shadow cabinet may have laid. Progressives have taken the opportunity to flog a well and truly dead horse by highlighting once again the decadent frivolities of Etonian Dave at Oxford, even when the public have shown resoundingly to not care in the slightest about the particulars of his upbringing. All the while, no one speaks up for the families which have suffered one crushing financial blow this week and are set to be on the receiving end of another in the near future.

Quite a formidable dead cat, by any standards.

Now With a Leader, Labour Must Show Itself More Interested in Power than Ever Before

Jeremy Corbyn's Shadow Cabinet. Photo Credit: BBC
Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet. Photo Credit: BBC

“My party has just hurled itself off a cliff,” one generally down-to-earth Labour MP reportedly wailed following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Opposition. The sentiment that Labour is in for a decade or more of wandering the wilderness from which it may never escape is not uncommon amongst its parliamentary representatives. After all, their new candidate for Prime Minister only just secured the number of MPs’ signatures required to run in the leadership contest and nearly half of those were from members who offered it merely in order to broaden the debate. Some of the rising stars of the Miliband shadow cabinet have withdrawn to the backbenches voluntarily, so sure are they are electoral collapse in 2020 and the elusiveness of power thereafter.

Reactions of despair of dismay are to be expected when one wing of a big tent party enjoys a meteoric rise at the expense of its polar opposite. However, so public a display of bleak pessimism has of course been calculated to undermine the new Labour leadership from the very start. MPs are already openly challenging Corbyn on his selection for Shadow Chancellor, tweeting in abundance about his apparent oversight of shadow ministerial roles for women and calling for a strong communications team to handle his alleged ineptness with the media.

And they are doing this right at moment when they know the media is most interested in what is happening within the Parliamentary Labour Party, and when the Conservatives and other parties are keeping their eye most closely for weak spots amongst the ranks.

Some may call this an appalling start for Corbyn, but it is even more emphatically an appalling start for Labour. Yesterday morning, Labour MPs should have strode out, if shell-shocked and unwilling, to present a unified front and began the work of an opposition serious about winning a mandate in 2020 by taking the Tories to task. With elections more dependent on narrative than ever, the campaign starts now with laying the foundations of a coherent vision that can be developed and strengthened right up until the country next goes to the polls. However, whilst the Conservatives have already embarked on new preparations for battle and enshrined ‘security’ as the watchword of the moment, Labour MPs have instead descended into quibbling and in-fighting.

If Labour moderates and centrists are worried that a Corbyn opposition reduces their chance of victory in 2020, then they are going a curious way about rectifying this supposed deficit. Despite convictions to the contrary, voters may well turn out to vote for Corbyn. There is absolutely no predicting what may happen or how the new leadership and its politics will ultimately resonate with the electorate. All the opinion polls and focus groups conducted now in 2015 have every chance of being rendered redundant over the next five years. What is closer to certain, however, is that voters are unlikely to turn out and vote for a party which is unable to keep its own house in order and is wracked with pessimism about its own ability to govern. Were Corbyn to resign or be ousted from the leadership before 2020, then the core Labour vote in England and Wales that rose up and believed that ‘Jez we could’ will never forgive whoever takes the crown. Labour would face an annihilation beyond that of 1983 or 2015 with the double-desertion of party faithful and the all-important swing vote. As bitter a pill as it may be to swallow, especially for those who joined the ranks and politically matured during the heady days of Blairism, this is Labour now. This is party that must battle the Tories and seek office, and woe betide it and its members if it fails to stand up to the task.

Many centrists- Chuka Ummuna, Emma and Jonathan Reynolds, Stephen Twigg- protested that Labour had to “move beyond its comfort zone” in order to win the keys to Number 10 and execute policies to achieve “equality and freedom”. Simon Danczuk bluntly asserted that the Labour Party “exists to win elections”. As a result, all these MPs swung behind Liz Kendall. Now, with the tables turned, they would perhaps do well to heed their own recommendation and explicitly back the team who may not share the exact same politics as they do but currently embody the party they claim to love and the chance of realising the goals to which they claim to aspire. Otherwise, far from it being Corbyn who robbed Labour of the 2020 election, it will perversely be those who all along have demanded that Labour remember not just purity, but power.

London Tube Strikes: Whatever Happened to the Right’s Hatred of the “Politics of Envy”?

One of the most common arguments levied against advocates of wealth redistribution and the higher taxation of the rich is that such an opinion is simply playing to the “politics of envy”. Unable to reconcile themselves with the idea that those CEOs receiving 130 more than their average employee may deserve such exorbitant pay packets, the left wishes to jealously condemn their hard-earnt money to the taxman. Or so the argument goes. People on the right, however, accept that if you are earning a certain salary, it’s because the market has prudently decided that that is your worth, and so it is the government’s job to interfere at little as possible. Well done you, all you high earners.

This makes the current right-wing coverage of the London Underground strikes- occurring in light of a dispute over working conditions in the new Night Service being introduced- a little curious. Trade unions are now an accepted feature of the landscape of our economy, even Sajid Jarvis, the Conservative minister for business, has officially stated that they have a “constructive role”. As a corollary of this, so too the principle tool for achieving the objectives of a trade union, in this age bereft of processes such as collective bargaining, must be accepted: the strike. A successful strike is simply a mechanism through which the market reevaluates the worth of a worker or group of workers, and therefore is as much as part of our economic structure as extortionate rents in London or bonuses dealt out in the City. If the strikers achieve a settlement which grants them a higher salary or better conditions (another indication of the worth of the worker) then well done them, surely?

But no. Instead, the Daily Mail has provided its readers with a helpful infographic illustrating how much better-off Tube drivers than London bus drivers, firefighters, nurses, soldiers and police officers even before the strike. It emphasises how Boris Johnson thinks “most people” would regard what the strikers are being offered as “a very generous deal”. The Daily Telegraph is running a similar piece, this time with the aid of a chart to show how lucky the those manning the Underground should consider themselves. These articles are not designed to congratulate the London Tube drivers on their success in obtaining more holiday and higher wages (if anything, the statistics used are misleading as they only indicate starting salaries and do not account for promotion prospects or the cost of living in London). Their objective is to whip up anger against the public, to make them wish to see the greedy strikers brought down a peg and the rally support for the government’s bill to bring the perfidious unions even closer to heel. In short, they are playing the politics of envy, asking ordinary working people to look at other ordinary working people and damn them for their ‘success’. Heaven forbid should anyone in the Mail or Telegraph suggest that “most people” should perhaps think that such ‘success’ could be also obtainable for them.

Meanwhile, they are silent about the executives and stockbrokers cursing the strikers as they make their slow way through a gridlocked London to the centre-point of where all the economic turmoil of our current times started.

Quick Note: Remember Conservatives Are Humans Too

It has often occurred to me that the stereotypes broadly applied to either wing of the political spectrum in the UK have always benefited the left: sure, progressives may be seen as wishy-washy, profligate, irresponsible or morally and intellectually self-righteous, but the quality of humanity is often conferred onto them as well. Conservatives are only allowed to be as positively portrayed as far as prudent or hard-headed allow them to be. Indeed, amongst all the deeper cuts to welfare in the budget last week and a close call on a vote to relax the ban on fox hunting, all the notions of evil that are imparted onto Conservatives are at a zenith in the left-wing consciousness.

Which brings me to the story of Andrew Cumpsty, one time Tory leader of Reading council, as reported in last Sunday’s Observer. Whilst on a holiday in The Gambia in 2000, he met Lamin Jatta, a ninth-generation descendant of the slave Kunta Kinteh, made famous in the 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. Cumpsty discovered that Jatta was trying to improve medical care in the village where he lived, yet could not afford the school fees which would allow him to pursue the correct course of education. On hearing this, Cumpsty and his travel companion immediately decided to sponsor Jatta and the councillor’s political involvement inspired the young Gambian to enter politics. When Jatta fled the country as the government cracked down on the opposition for which he was standing, Cumpsty managed to persuade MPs to question Gambia’s, a Commonwealth nation, record of freedom of speech in the House of Commons. Jatta now lives in Seattle, ready to play a role in a new television adaptation of Roots.

One could almost see David Cameron in a parallel life, traveling to a far-flung land and engaging in an act consistent with the compassionate Conservatism that either political expediency or the pressures of office have largely extinguished from his public profile. The generosity of Cumpsty, who acted spontaneously and seemingly with only goodwill in mind, is a powerful reminder to all those across the political spectrum that Tories do have the facility to have hearts too.

As Tempting As It May Be, Do Not Take Down the Confederate Flag… Yet

 

Huffington Post
Huffington Post

Terrorism provokes. That is one of its principal objectives. The massacre of innocents for the sake of an ideological programme is always going to elicit instantaneous reactions that seem fair and logical in the moment, but may not always be on closer inspection. The notorious example in the UK presently is David Cameron’s response to the radicalisation of a few British Muslims who then leave to join ISIS, his statement that British society is too passively tolerant, leaving alone people for the sole reason that they obey the law.

In the United States, the most salient example of the moment is the calls to take down the Confederate Flag. This reaction to the massacre in Charleston, SC, on the 17th June has been taken up by innumerable liberals on Facebook, the Washington Post, the Atlantic and even Mitt Romney. It is a course of action- removing the defining icon of a failed nation state that during its short history was propped up economically by slavery and the symbol for a region that up into the 1960s opposed the legal enshrinement of racial equality- that seems straightforward and long overdue.

However, as courses of action go, it is one of the most foolish.

Flags are powerful symbols, presumably why they are used ubiquitously to represent everything from political entities to football clubs to terrorist organisations. They are common reference points for allegiance, but these notions of allegiance and the motives behind it naturally vary. When it comes to the Confederate Flag flying in Charleston, Dylann Storm Roof embodies the most extreme end of the spectrum of allegiance, one which views that particular flag as a totem for a heritage of white supremacy worth killing for. For every person like Roof, there are thousands of others Southerners who could consider the flag to be a emblem of their lifestyle, their own values, their state’s rights and independence from those with whom they disagree on issues with little or nothing to do with race. For every fanatic, there are thousands of moderates.

To remove the flag in response to Roof’s act of terrorism would be to implicitly equate every other interpretation of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and to attack them all. Whereas, to liberal North-easters and West-coasters, it would be tantamount to removing an outdated and unnecessary relic of a less than illustrious past, there is no telling what it may mean to an unquantifiable number of South Carolinans or Southerners in general. People who have created the partially-unreconstructed or defiant context in which an individual like Roof is a feasible yet who are also as far as one can tell as law-abiding and peaceful as anyone else.

One need only look at the trouble caused by tampering with ‘flag policy’ in another region of the Western world where identity politics can be volatile. In December 2012,  Belfast City Council in Northern Ireland voted to restrict the number of days on which the Union Flag would be flown from their City Hall. In response, during the following weeks, Unionist Northern Irishmen and women participated in riots which concluded with 157 police officers injured and 560 criminal charges. Protests ran late into 2013 as many felt betrayed by the British state to which they had pledged their support throughout the 30 years of civil war that ripped through Ulster in the late 20th Century. To this day, there is widespread unease about the restriction of Unionist expression in Northern Ireland. And this was a decision taken by the elected members of a local democratic body after serious and thorough debate. The sudden and forcible removal of the Confederate flag off the back of a vocal liberal campaign centred far from South Carolina could very well elicit a more dramatic response from the local people of Charleston.

Furthermore, Roof’s radicalisation was not just borne of the presence of the Confederate flag in his hometown. His ideological journey took him to the memorials of Confederate generals, slavery museums and former slave plantations. In the South, there is a whole apparatus designed to commemorate one of its most infamous periods in history. What sort of precedent could be set by removing the Confederate flag at a time like this? Would South Carolina and states further South then be required to at least partially dismantle its apparatus of remembrance and heritage? Rename its street signs and close some of its museums? Again, liberals further north and west may applaud such an approach, but to many on the ground this again would represent nothing less than provocative assault on something altogether less harmful and more inextricable than the hangover of racism from the Civil War and Jim Crow. However, this could conceivably be viewed as undermining some of the more acceptable aspects of Southern identity, and as soon as a people feel their identity undermined, they become defensive and potentially sympathetic to even some of the uglier fringes of their heritage.

There are only two realistic approaches to take towards the Confederate flag fluttering over Charleston, although neither will seem appealing to the more hot-headed of liberals in the US and beyond. The first is to wait for it, along with all the other symbols of Southern history and identity to become fully assimilated into a non-racist context, for them to be rehabilitated, to have their meanings alter in a process that symbols often undergo. The second is to wait for the people of South Carolina and the rest of the South to completely outgrow the Confederate flag and some of its current associations (a stage to which they, demonstrably, have no yet reached) and for them to dispose of it themselves, by referendum or by electing politicians who they know have an interest in taking it down. No edict or executive order will suffice in replacing the slow process of societal change and education, and it would be perilous to assume that it could.