Author Archives: Mike

Churchill or Bust?

President Barack Obama shows Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom a bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the private residence of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

There are so many big lies in the world – think Brexit Bus or the current outpourings from the Whitehouse – that there is a danger that the little lies slip through unnoticed. I am not talking about the run of the mill little white lies or the exaggerations and omissions that happen all the time. Instead I want to talk about seemingly minor inaccuracies that become significant further down the line.

 

CHURCHILL’S BUST

The story of Churchill’s bust is one such tale. According to the myth Barack Obama removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House and returned it to the British Government when he became President in 2009 because of his alleged antipathy towards the United Kingdom.

That is the version that the Daily Telegraph published at the time and it returned to prominence in 2012 when Charles Krauthammer used it again as evidence of the Obama regime’s antipathy to Britain in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

There was initial confusion in the Obama team when they issued a denial.

This is 100% false. The bust still in the White House. In the Residence. Outside the Treaty Room.

The denial was wrong. The bust had been returned. But that was because it had only been on loan to president Bush while the original White House bust of Churchill, which has been there since 1965, was either undergoing restoration work or was in its usual home outside the Treaty Room in the private residence on the second floor of the White House. As the same Obama White House Archive post makes clear in an update:

On January 20, 2009 — Inauguration Day — all of the art lent specifically for President Bush’s Oval Office was removed by the curator’s office, as is common practice at the end of every presidency. The original Churchill bust remained on display in the residence.

They even provide a picture of President Obama showing the bust to Prime Minister Cameron in the White House residence. But that initial error by President Obama’s staff was seized on as a lie by opponents who ignored subsequent corrections. They  used the return of the bust to build a case against President Obama. Never mind that the fact of the return did not support the proposition that President Obama was hostile to the UK. The initial denial of the fact of the return of the bust and the subsequent correction were themselves taken as evidence to support the proposition. The correction was described as a humiliating climb-down and further doubt was cast on President Obama’s motivation. This interview of Krauthammer by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News is especially interesting.

B. O’REILLY: Here’s the back story. Some people believe that President Obama doesn’t like Winston Churchill because of British colonialism in Africa, particularly Kenya. So that he didn’t want old Winnie looking at him because he didn’t like him. That he sent it back because of that. That’s what’s been around.
Now, your point on even bringing it up, the bust deal was, what?
KRAUTHAMMER: My point was I don’t read into people’s minds. If I wanted to, I would have remained in psychiatry. All I know is that the British reaction to the return of the bust was extremely negative, and it felt like it was an insult, that this was a gift after 9/11 to show solidarity. The British had soldiers serving with us at the time in Iraq and Afghanistan, really standing shoulder to shoulder and this was a slight. That’s how they saw it.

Krauthammer is taking his cue from the Telegraph, who in turn were quoting the British Embassy. But the bust was not a gift. It was a loan. And it was not a sign of solidarity after 9/11. It was loaned to President Bush in July, months before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. So on one hand we have a genuine mistake because President Obama’s staff were confused by the fact that there were two Churchill busts in the White House in 2009, and they quickly issued a correction when their mistake was pointed out. On the other hand we have an attack on President Obama’s motivation and his state of mind that had no basis in fact. President Obama’s critics have yet to issue a correction to their mistaken apprehension of the facts.

BREXIT

The supposed antipathy of President Obama to British colonialism based on his Kenyan roots was to return during the Brexit referendum campaign. President Obama intervened on behalf of his old ally, Prime Minister Cameron to dismiss the idea that a trade deal with the USA would replace our access to the single market. President Obama pointed out that the EU was a major trading partner and Britain outside the EU could expect to find itself at the back of the queue for trade deals. I find it inconceivable that Barack Obama would intervene so flagrantly in the internal affairs of an ally without the express approval of David Cameron. But it proved to be yet another misstep by the Remain Campaign.

Boris Johnson for the Brexit camp responded by reviving the tale of Churchill’s bust and expanding on Bill O’Reilly’s anti-colonial argument by claiming that President Obama disliked Churchill because he had sent British troops into Kenya to quell an uprising. In a Brexit campaign pandering to the fears of immigration by those in Britain’s equivalent of the Rust Belt in the USA such dog whistle racism was condemned by the Remain camp and went unchallenged in the Brexit camp. President Obama answered the claims of anti British and specifically anti Churchill bias at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Cameron but to no avail.

THE STORY SO FAR

The best timeline of events is here. The short version is that the right wing Daily Telegraph put an anti-Obama spin on the original return of the bust in 2009 that erroneously linked the original loan of the bust to 9/11. In 2012 Christopher Krauthammer revived the tale and also played up 9/11, claiming that the return of the bust was an insult to the solidarity shown by Britain to the USA and showed where President Obama’s real sympathies lay. Though he was not so explicit as Dinesh D’Souza who said in his The Roots of Obama’s Rage.

Obama views Muslims who are fighting against America in Iraq and Afghanistan as freedom fighters, somewhat akin to Indians or Kenyans fighting to push out their British colonial occupier.

The myth was revived by anti EU campaigner Boris Johnson to undermine President Obama’s support for Prime Minister Cameron and the Remain campaign. The UK subsequently voted to leave the EU. Then, employing a similar populist strategy with complete disregard for the facts, Donald Trump successfully ran for president on a blatantly racist and sexist ticket.

THE STORY LINGERS ON

And it is not over yet. President Trump’s election has aroused protest on both sides of the Atlantic. 1.8 million people have signed a petition condemning the proposed state visit to the UK by President Trump. On February 6th the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, was adamant that the democratic values of the UK parliament, its anti racism, anti sexism and respect for the rule of law were inimical to an invitation to President Trump to address the UK parliament. In opposition to John Bercow Churchill’s bust was evoked by Republican Congressman, Joe Wilson. He suggested that it was the Republican Party that had restored this bust to its place of honour in Congress. This is yet another bust of Churchill that was not presented to Congress until 2013 and was then placed inside Congress’s statuary hall  in the Capitol Building were it remains to this day.

So some misreporting in the Daily Telegraph and a misunderstanding by President Obama’s white House staff about an obscure piece of statuary has morphed into a symbolic battle with anti EU campaigners in the UK and pro Trump supporters in the USA, claiming Winston Churchill as an ally against  Barack Obama, the pro Europe camp within the UK and the Democratic opposition in the USA.

The Nazis coined the phrase that, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” But before them Lenin had claimed that, “a lie told often enough becomes the truth.”

And no lie is too small to become truth. We ignore all lies at our peril.

Is Trump a God? The Consolations of Mythology.

Bernard Knox’s introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad contains an interesting discussion on the nature of the gods and heroes of Greek myth. In contrast to the moral theology that has subsequently developed out of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, gods and heroes were not expected to be a source of ethical or moral behaviour. If you wanted guidance on how to lead a good life you turned to philosophy rather than religion. It was Socrates who declared that the unexamined life was a life unlived, in the same sense that non-sentient animals exist without living. Beast or god? It was a moot point for Aristotle:  “The man who is incapable of working in common, or who in his self -sufficiency has no need of others, is no part of the community, like a beast or a god.”

Knox takes up this theme.

“To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfilment of one’s own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism.
“But there are human beings who are like this. Preeminent in their particular sphere of power, they impose their will on others with the confidence, the unquestioning certainty of their own right and worth that is characteristic of the gods.”

This description straightaway called to mind the phenomena of world leaders like Putin and Trump. Their policy decisions are guided not by reason but by their own psychological need to be accorded at least the accoutrements of respect and adulation. Being a god or a hero in the world of the ancient Greeks was not necessarily a good thing. The gods were similarly capricious beings who demanded worship and adulation but could be very fickle in their favours. The heroes sought to live like the gods but all were fated to die like men.

“Heroes might be, usually were, violent, antisocial, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessels humanity is capable of superhuman greatness, that there are some human beings who can deny the imperatives which others obey in order to live.
“The heroes are godlike in their passionate self-esteem. But they are not gods, not immortal. They are subject, like the rest of us, to failure, above all to the irremediable failure of death.”

Death comes to all. But heroes could achieve redemption if they recognized their failings and made their peace with the world before the end. Though it would come a bit late for their victims.

“And sooner or later, in suffering, in disaster, they come to realize their limits, accept mortality and establish (or re-establish) a human relationship with their fellowmen. This pattern, recurrent in the myths of the  Greeks, and later to be the model for some of the greatest Athenian tragedies, is first given artistic form in the Iliad.”

But what of the Gods? They are immortal, all-powerful beings. Why should they even want to change? There is a novel take on this in “The Last Days of Troy,” Simon Armitage’s masterly achievement in turning the Iliad into a two act play. At one point the gods are arguing about whether they should stand by while the superior Trojans triumph or should they intervene and help the Greeks win.

Zeus: We need believers, people of faith. If we sympathise – rule with a bleeding heart – then we favour the weak. And the weak are fickle and disappointed, diseased. The weak are weak. Do we put our future in their shaking hands?
Athene: You are saying … let the powerful survive. Those of the strongest arm.
Zeus: And the quickest arm, and the deadliest aim and the sharpest mind. It might be tomorrow or it might take another ten years. But someone will triumph either through muscle or brain …
Thetis: And they’ll be worthy of our praise.
Zeus: … and we of theirs.

An interesting point of theology. Zeus is wondering if the gods are actually made in the image of man by man. They may be immortal but they draw their potency from their worshippers.  And in the play Simon Armitage creates a modern day Zeus, devoid of all power who scrapes a living as an actor pretending to be Zeus and selling souvenirs on Mount Olympus.
And so, to our own modern day Zeus. Today I heard Trump say in a press conference that he respects the sovereignty and the right to self-determination of the United Kingdom; as if that were ever in his gift to bestow or to deny! He certainly matches the gods in overweening arrogance. He also matches them in his dependency on public approval. Deny him that. Lose no opportunity to expose him to public ridicule. Organize in opposition to his every move in the hope and expectation that he self-destructs before he manages to destroy America and the world. Our latter-day twilight of the gods cannot come to soon.

Labour and Article 50

Jeremy Corbyn is coming in for a lot of criticism over the three line whip on MPs to vote for the Government motion on Article 50. But what was the alternative? Corbyn has stood by the democratic principle that Parliament should honour the result of the Referendum from the beginning. The type of Brexit has been the subject of debate. Here some of Corbyn’s critics in the Labour Party have been making conflicting demands. On the one hand they understand the importance of the Single Market. But they are also trying to appease the anti-immigration feeling that has helped UKIP make inroads in the Labour heartlands.
Corbyn’s consistent response has been to oppose immigration controls. He argues that the important thing is for UK to continue to have unfettered access to European markets to defend jobs in this country. Free movement of goods presupposes free movement of labour. But free movement of labour should not be used to undercut wages and conditions in this country. Nor should communities that take a disproportionate number of migrant labourers suffer because of pressures on local infrastructure. You could argue that he has been ineffective in getting this message across. It would have been easier perhaps if he did not always have to answer media questions about splits in Labour’s ranks over immigration whenever he was interviewed on the subject
Labour is facing by-elections in two constituencies where the core Labour vote is overwhelmingly pro-Brexit. These by-elections were prompted by the resignation of two high profile Labour remainers, Tristram Hunt in Stoke and Jamie Read in Copeland. UKIP are the main challengers in Stoke and the Tories are hoping that a similar UKIP surge in Copeland will split the Labour vote and let them in. For Corbyn to be seen undermining the referendum result now would spell electoral disaster.
There are a lot of Labour MPs in a similar position in Labour’s heartlands. Many of them are from the centre and right of the party and have been highly critical of Corbyn throughout his leadership. This three line whip lets them off the hook over Article 50. Just asking MPs to vote to trigger Article 50 would have given the nod to a rebellion that would be seized upon by Labour’s critics to exploit their divisions on Europe. A free vote would have given them all the dilemma of following their principles at the risk of alienating still further their electorate or else appearing hypocritical. Even Labour MPs whose constituencies favoured remain are not immune to these pressures. The Lib Dems have an open strategy of appealing to Remain voters. They do not expect to get any Brexit voters any time soon. Labour MPs need both because the Labour electorate is divided on this issue and at present UKIP presents a greater existential threat to Labour than the Lib-Dems.
Now Corbyn has given them all a way out. Without a massive rebellion by Tory MPs Article 50 is going to be invoked anyway. Why split the party for the Tories’ benefit when a united Labour Party is needed to push for the best possible deal that defends jobs and living standards in a post-Brexit world? I find it ironic that the MPs who once accused Corbyn of gesture politics want a gesture of their own now that he is trying to practice some realpolitik.

Yet Another Baseless Labour Party Scare Story

jeremy_corbyn-1Labour Officials warned to be on the alert for violent behaviour at Labour Party Conference.

This is a headline in today’s i paper. Apparently there is a memo, we are not told who wrote it, that warned Labour Party officials to be on the lookout for “aggressive and potentially violent behaviour” at the conference this weekend.

I am sure the Labour Party will be able to handle anything that comes their way. After all they had no problems 11 years ago when a Stop the War Coalition member was forcibly ejected for heckling the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw during a speech supporting UK military intervention in Iraq. According to the Daily Telegraph

The Foreign Secretary was telling the conference that Britain was in Iraq “for one reason only” – to help the elected Iraqi government – when Walter Wolfgang shouted: “That’s a lie and you know it.” Mr Wolfgang, was immediately surrounded by security staff in full view of the television cameras and ejected from the hall in Brighton as officials revoked his pass.

When he tried to re-enter the secure zone, he was stopped by a police officer citing the Terrorism Act. At first Sussex police denied that Mr Wolfgang had been detained or searched but a spokesman later admitted that he had been issued with a section 44 stop and search form under the Terrorism Act.

Mr Wolfgang said: “We have reached a situation where freedom of expression has been threatened. I am not surprised, because the Labour Party has been taken over by a gang of adventurers who are on their way out.”

Mr Wolfgang was just as left wing as Jeremy Corbyn. He was a founder of CND who wanted to nationalize the land, ban nuclear weapons and leave NATO. And for that he was ejected from the Labour Party conference and arrested under the Terrorism Act. But the next day he was back in the conference and Prime Minister Tony Blair publicly apologised on national radio and television.

So when politicians like Chuka Umunna claim that levels of abuse, intimidation and vitriol in the Labour Party are worse than he can remember in the last 20 years, perhaps someone should remind him of the time the Blairites had to apologize when their “thugs” (with thanks to my MP, the Blairite John Woodcock for legitimizing this term of political analysis in a recent article in the Daily Mail) picked on an 82 year old Jewish socialist who escaped to Britain from Nazi Germany before the Second World War and joined the Labour Party in 1948.

Speaking of John Woodcock, his article ended with an invocation of the name of Clement Attlee. This showed an unfortunate sense of timing given that Atlee’s great nephew and great niece recently came out in support of Jeremy Corbyn. And then one of them, John MacDonald, was suspended from the Labour Party for activity on social media that does not exist. 160912-john-macdonald



 This is old style Blairite spin in action. Feed the press with a scare story about potential bullying and intimidation that has not happened yet, while conveniently ignoring what did happen when you were in charge. Raise up the spectre of a hit list of MPs facing potential deselection while ignoring the fact that thousands of members have already been deselected by the Labour Party’s Compliance Committee removing longstanding members’ right to vote. Complain about abuse while subjecting Corbyn and his supporters to unremitting abuse, questioning their capability, their honesty and their political and moral fibre while studiously avoiding any reference to their policies. Unless your name is Owen Smith. In which case you lay claim to the policies while launching personal attacks on a leader whose policies you claim to support.

Never mind. Jeremy Corbyn is going to win the leadership election AGAIN. Will his opponents in the Labour Party remember their democratic credentials and get behind him. What would Clem Attlee think of it all?  160912-clement-attlee


A Tale of Two Headlines

 

Frontpage1On Tuesday 19th July the Northwest Evening Mail was dominated by the news that the renewal of Trident guaranteed the future prosperity of Barrow-in-Furness, where BAe Systems will build the Successor programme of Trident submarines.

The project, which is estimated to cost £31 billion, will bring new buildings and roads to Barrow. 5,000 extra jobs are expected on top of the 7,000 people who already work in the shipyard and the knock on effect for property prices and other businesses in the town will make life better for many people.

But the day after the announcement anFrontpage2other front page headline in the Northwest Evening Mail suggested that not everybody  benefits from the Trident programme. The Borough Council are facing another round of cuts in the service of the government’s austerity programme. These cuts will inevitably fall upon the poor, the sick, the disabled; all those people who depend upon council services. As well as a food bank we also have a soup kitchen for those who cannot always afford the energy to cook a hot meal.

When I first moved to Barrow, thirty-three years ago the shipyard dominated the town even more so than today. 14,000 people worked in the yard, including thousands of white collar workers who drew up the plans and drawings for the vessels the yard built. There was a thriving apprenticeship scheme. It was hard to find a household without at least one family member employed by Vickers Shipbuilding & Engineering Ltd, the company that ran the yard in those days. When the whistle sounded for “Vickers Out” thousands of workers would stream out on foot and on bikes filling the entire road.

Since then computer aided design has devastated the prospects for white collar employment. High tech production techniques and new employment practices such as subcontracting rather than direct employment have affected the blue collar workforce. The closure and demolition of the apprentice school may have been more symbolic than real in its consequences but the message to young Barrovians was clear. You could no longer rely upon the shipyard for your future.

House prices tumbled as Boom Town Barrow went into decline. My wife and I were trapped by negative equity for years as skilled workers were selling up and moving on in search of employment. Young people who could get to university did not return to bring their skills and enterprise to the town.  The 2011 census revealed a 4 per cent decline in population at a time when the overall population of England and Wales was rising at record rates.

Throughout this time the shipyard has survived and prospered thanks to the government funded Trident programme. It is now a profitable part of aerospace giant, BAe Systems. And those Barrovians who were able to keep their jobs or acquire the skills required for the new jobs have benefited from the Trident programme. But I am left with the feeling that, where once the shipyard was a unifying influence that brought prosperity to the whole town, now it seems to divide the town. The shipyard is booming again thanks to massive government expenditure. Meanwhile government cuts are devastating the lives of those least able to benefit from this boom. The high street is dominated by charity shops, Poundsavers and Poundstretchers, and other discount stores. And it could be argued that the people who use them are in effect subsidizing the jobs of their more fortunate neighbours via cuts to social care budget.

This divide was succinctly illustrated by the front page of the Evening Mail on Wednesday 7th September. This issue celebrates 30 years of submarine production at the Devonshire Dock Hall, the largest structure in Barrow and soon to be dwarfed by the buildings that will house the Successor programme. But the main headline tells a more shocking story.frontpage3

Crimes of violence against the person are as bad as Manchester and worse than Liverpool at 20.5 per thousand people. Self-harm is also way above the national average at 358 hospital admissions per 100,000 people. Problems with alcohol and smoking related deaths are also above the national average. There is a well-established link between figures like this and poverty. Barrow, despite thirty years of prosperity based on the Trident Programme and looking forward to a similar period of prosperity during the Successor Programme is one of the poorest, most deprived boroughs in England.

Personally I am opposed to Trident. Weapons of Mass Destruction are immoral whoever wields them. And there are plenty of other infrastructure projects around transport, renewable energy and carbon capture that would benefit from similar levels of investment and guarantee jobs for years to come. There is also an argument that being obsessed with great power status and possessing a so-called independent deterrent detracts from a proper debate about the role of Britain in the world and the sort of armed forces we need to carry out that role. For now that debate is over. Parliament has approved the Successor Programme. Even if we get a Labour government committed to abolishing our deterrent, it will be well nigh impossible for them to extract us from all the contracts, deals and agreements, never mind the horrendous penalty charges that would entail.

We can still learn from the past thirty years. How could such massive expenditure in Barrow lead to increasing poverty and a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots? We may not be in as position to stop the renewal of our nuclear deterrent. But we should strive to ensure that this new tranche of government investment serves to narrow that divide rather than exacerbate it. That is a discussion that ought to find favour with all wings of the Labour movement.

Corbyn’s critics plumb new depths

On Sunday Nick Cohen wrote a column in the Observer: Extremism thrives because of cowardly collaborators.  It was fairly run of the mill. Republican politicians who pride themselves on their desire to emulate Churchill and compare Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler are showing cowardice and hypocrisy by refusing to condemn Donald Trump whom Cohen describes in these terms:

I don’t throw the word “fascism” around, but can we at least accept that Trump follows the Führerprinzip? He has no colleagues, only followers. He is a racist. Not a closet racist, or a dog-whistle racist, but a racist so unabashed that the Klan endorses him. Above all, he has the swaggering dictator’s determination to bawl opponents into silence with screams of “loser”, “dummy”, “fraud”, “puppet,” “biased”, “disgusting”, “liar” and “kook”.

Cohen believes that Trump is unfit to hold office and that any Republican worth his or her salt should come out and say so. But most are staying silent or openly endorsing him, either out of fear or self-interest. This is unremarkable stuff. Many American commentators are making similar points, going so far as to say that Trump is destroying the GOP. This might be expected from The Washington Post but a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush is saying the same thing.

Now, I imagine the last person most people would compare to Trump is Jeremy Corbyn. Yet Cohen does just that in his final paragraphs.

Compare them to the British Labour MPs fighting Jeremy Corbyn. They are everything that conservatives despise: hand-wringingly PC, eco-conscious, emotionally literate, bleeding-heart do-gooders every last one of them. Christ, some of them may even read the Observer. But after the killing of Jo Cox by an alleged rightwing extremist, Angela Eagle, Jess Phillips and all the other anti-Corbyn MPs who are speaking out know that the death and rape threats from left-wing extremists may not just be bluster.

They are showing true courage. Not just moral courage but physical courage. A courage that those American conservatives, who are so loud in the determination to fight the threats of the past, and so silent before the dangers of the present, entirely lack.

By extolling the courage of Labour MPs who stand up to Corbyn and denigrating the cowardice in the GOP is Cohen implying that Corbyn is no better than Trump? And having already compared Trump to Hitler is he suggesting a similar parallel with Corbyn? Perhaps he is harking back to the furore about alleged anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks and laying that at Corbyn’s door.

And note the not so subtle reference to the “alleged” right wing extremist who murdered Jo Cox that is set against the unequivocal “left-wing extremists” who are blamed for the anonymous online abuse being aimed at Corbyn’s opponents. You can almost hear the subtext.

“They say he was rightwing but just you wait until the left-wing extremists start making good their threats of violence. He may turn out to be not so rightwing after all.”

I happen to agree with Cohen about the craven hypocrisy of Republican politicians. But conflating that with the death of Jo Cox to imply that Labour MPs are more at risk of violence than their American counterparts in the GOP is taking the campaign against Corbyn to new depths. And it is not true. Apart from the IRA bombing campaign against Britain very few UK politicians have been the subject of political violence. By comparison, thirty-four US politicians and senior officials have been assassinated since 1825, including four Presidents of the United States. The most recent was a federal judge, John Rolls in 2011. Sixteen have been killed since the assassination of JFK in 1963. Following his assassination seven US presidents have been the subject of assassination attempts including Barack Obama. The plot to kill him was thwarted at the planning stage in 2008. You can read the full list here.

But in Cohen’s book the Left are all potential murderers and rapists unless proven otherwise. When allegations are raised about conduct within our ranks we are expected to condemn them out of hand whether they are true or not. Remember Angela eagle’s constituency office window that was never broken?

Perhaps he should reread his column, particularly the part where he says,

Latinos have to explain why they are not rapists and murderers or shut up and give up. Muslims have to explain that they are not terrorists or they lose the right to a hearing. At every stage, the argument is shifted on to the troll’s terrain of ethnic and religious loyalty tests. Except here the troll could become the world’s most powerful man.

We know how they feel. Except that here the troll writes a weekly column for the Observer.

Will Theresa May keep her promise to deliver “A Better Britain?”

ThTheresa Mayere has been a lot of talk about Theresa May occupying the centre ground and even threatening to undercut Labour with a speech that would not have sounded out of place at a Jeremy Corbyn rally. But before we get carried away, we would do well to compare her words with those of previous Conservative Prime Ministers on first coming to power. Then compare and contrast those words with their record in office.

Theresa May July 15th 2016

‘That means fighting against the burning injustice that if you’re born poor you will die on average nine years earlier than others. ‘If you’re black you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white working class boy you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. ‘If you’re at a state school you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman you will earn less than a man. ‘If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young you will find it harder than ever before to own your own home.’ She added: ‘But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices. ‘If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise.’

Margaret Thatcher May 4th 1979

“And I would just like to remember some words of St. Francis of Assisi which I think are really just particularly apt at the moment. ‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.’”

John Major December 4th 1990

“Amidst the inevitable competitive thrust of life, it should be a compassionate society. Genuinely compassionate – because some people do need a special helping hand to help them enjoy a full life of choice and independence. And we should never forget that small changes in the lives of private people are every bit as important to them as dramatic changes in the lives of public people. And a classless society: not in the grey sense of drab uniformity – but in the sense that we remove the artificial barriers to choice and achievement.”

David Cameron May 11th 2010

One of the tasks that we clearly have is to rebuild trust in our political system. Yes that’s about cleaning up expenses, yes that is about reforming parliament, and yes it is about making sure people are in control – and that the politicians are always their servant and never their masters.

But I believe it is also something else. It is about being honest about what government can achieve. Real change is not what government can do on its own – real change is when everyone pulls together, comes together, works together, where we all exercise our responsibilities to ourselves, to our families, to our communities and to others.

And I want to help try and build a more responsible society here in Britain. One where we don’t just ask what are my entitlements, but what are my responsibilities. One where we don’t ask what am I just owed, but more what can I give. And a guide for that society – that those that can should, and those who can’t we will always help. I want to make sure that my government always looks after the elderly, the frail the poorest in our country. We must take everyone through with us on some of the difficult decisions we have ahead. Above all it will be a government that is built on some clear values. Values of freedom, values of fairness, and values of responsibility.

I want us to build an economy that rewards work. I want us to build a society with stronger families and stronger communities. And I want a political system that people can trust and look up to once again.

 

 

 

Cameron Blew it Over Brexit. So Lets Blame Corbyn

One narrative that is emerging to explain the outcome of the EU Referendum hinges on the claim that the Labour Party did not deliver the vote in its traditional northern heartlands. Or rather, Corbyn did not deliver because his brand of metropolitan socialism did not resonate with the concerns of traditional, socially conservative labour voters, in particular around the impact of largescale immigration from the EU on their communities.

And younger city dwellers who are fast becoming the natural demographic for Corbyn supporters are alleged to have failed to vote in sufficient numbers. According to a tweet by Sky Data that quickly gained acceptance on social media only 36% of 18 – 24 year olds voted.  Writing in The New Statesman, Barbara Speed was not convinced.

Sky isn’t claiming this is collected data – it’s projected, and a subsequent tweet said it was based on “9+/10 certainty to vote, usually/always votes, voted/ineligible at GE2015”. I’ve asked for more information on what this means, but for now it’s enough to say it’s nothing more than a guess.

On Sunday the Observer provided some more reliable data from Opinium, the polling agency that came closest to predicting the outcome of the EU Referendum.

OPINIUM Poll published on June 22nd

graphgraph 1

According to the Observer, Opinium pollsters, working for the LSE after the referendum

found turnout among young people to be far higher than data has so far suggested. “Young people cared and voted in very large numbers. We found turnout was very close to the national average, and much higher than in general and local elections.

“After correcting for over-reporting [people always say they vote more than they do], we found that the likely turnout of 18- to 24-year-olds was 70% – just 2.5% below the national average – and 67% for 25- to 29-year-olds.

The original Opinium poll published on the eve of the referendum also demonstrated the extent of the split in the Labour and Conservative parties. And the split was more pronounced for the Tories.

graph 2

The figures suggest that the Labour vote for Remain held even in the North, where their core vote was already under pressure from UKIP. This is borne out by post a Referendum poll by Lord Ashcroft.

Remain % Leave %
Conservative 42 58
Labour 63 37
Lib Dem 70 30
UKIP 4 96
Green 75 25
SNP 64 36

Source: Ashcroft polls Get the data

TO SUM UP

The Tories, not Labour promised a referendum on Europe.

The Tories, not Labour negotiated the new terms to keep Britain the EU.

The majority of Tory voters voted to leave.

The majority of Labour voters voted to remain.

But it is Labour, not the Tories who are to blame because they did not deliver a big enough vote for Remain. The Parliamentary Labour Party have accepted this and decided that they are going to blame Jeremy Corbyn. That is the justification for their leadership coup. There may be good political reasons to question Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But the Referendum Campaign is not one of them.

Brexit? Blame it on Corbyn!

_89974521_mps_declare_eu_stance_14_06_16_624gr

I am very angry with David Cameron. If the Remain camp is right and Brexit would be an unmitigated disaster for the UK why is he risking all our futures with this referendum? The only reason I can find is that he has put his party first and his country second. Last year with a general election approaching, the euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party was threatening to defect to UKIP in large numbers. Cameron did not believe he could win the election and so  made a manifesto pledge to renegotiate the terms of UK membership of the EU and hold a referendum if the Conservatives formed the next government. He never expected he would have to deliver on this promise but he calculated that it would serve to keep the Conservative Party together. So when he won the election what was he supposed to do?

  1. Break the election pledge on the grounds that he would not lead this country into the abyss, and carry on as Prime Minister?
  2. Break the election pledge on the grounds that he would not lead this country into the abyss, and resign as Prime Minister?
  3. Engage in a cosmetic “renegotiation” with our EU partners (Help me out here, guys!) and proclaim a great victory that fools nobody?

Cameron chose the third option and the result has been a Blue on Blue campaign within a divided Conservative Party. Remain is using the politics of fear: economic disaster if we leave. Brexit reciprocates with the bogey of unlimited immigration if we stay. Whether right or wrong both these arguments are about narrow self interest. The Labour campaign to remain has not received the same level of publicity but, as far as I can make out, they are saying that the EU is a flawed institution in need of further reform. Nevertheless it remains a positive force and Britain should remain and lead the campaign to improve the EU.

There has been a constant, nagging element to media coverage that Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn is lukewarm in his support for the EU and if Brexit wins it will be his fault for not delivering the Labour vote on Referendum Day. Never mind that he has been touring the country delivering a pro EU message throughout the campaign with very little media coverage. What media coverage there is focuses on confusion among Labour voters about where their party stands in relation to the EU. Of course they are confused. Unless you live in one of the towns where Corbyn and his team visits and delivers the pro EU message you have to rely on the national media for your news. And, with rare exceptions, they are not reporting his contribution to the debate, preferring the drama of the “blue on blue action” in the Conservative Party. “Politician says something sensible and people support him,” is not a newsworthy headline.

But if we do leave the EU it will be down to Cameron, not Corbyn. Consider the evidence.

  1. Tory MPs are split 4 to 3 in favour of the EU. Labour split is 20 to 1 in favour of the EU.
  2. The Cabinet is divided. The Shadow Cabinet is united.
  3. Conservative voters divide equally between Remain and Exit. Labour are between 60% and 70% for Remain.

Whatever the outcome  of the Referendum, Cameron should resign. Any notion that a victory for Brexit is down to Labour equivocation has no justification in fact. If not for Cameron’s cowardly retreat in the face of his euro-sceptic opponents in the Conservative Party we would not even be in this plight.

 

 

ADHD – An Independent Position

There was an interesting article in the Independent on Sunday (20/09/15) entitled “Thousands of children are being medicated for ADHD – when the condition may not even exist,”

The author, William Sutcliffe has just published a novel, “Concentr8” described by Sutcliffe as,

“Concentr8, a novel set in a seemingly fantastical London where a mayor has instituted a programme to push out a behaviour-modifying drug on increasing numbers of misbehaving children and teenagers. Non-fiction extracts open each chapter, slowly revealing this world to be far closer to reality than one would like to believe.”

Sutcliffe argues that the real life use of Ritalin to control the symptoms of ADHD has a lot in common with the themes of his book. I have yet to read Concentr8 but I am interested in what Sutcliffe has to say about ADHD.

HOW REAL IS ADHD?

He starts by questioning the validity of ADHD. The use of drugs to treat it has more than doubled in the last ten years. These drugs are a multi-billion pound industry. Yet there is no clinical proof that ADHD is a genuine illness. People diagnosed with ADHD do have real problems but there are no biological markers that can be used to diagnose ADHD. Sutcliffe’s source is a Sami Timimi, consultant child psychiatrist at Lincolnshire NHS Trust. According to Timimi he,

“is ‘not saying those who have the diagnosis don’t have any problem’, he is adamant that ‘there is no robust evidence to demonstrate that what we call ADHD correlates with any known biological or neurological abnormality’.

“Sami Timimi’s clinic in Lincolnshire advocates a group therapy approach that focuses on ‘relationship building’ rather than ‘behavioural control’, using some of the techniques of NHA (Nurtured Heart Approach) therapy, which involves teachers and parents in a process of developing strategies to transform negative behaviours into positive behaviours. Timimi hasn’t prescribed Ritalin to a single child for five years, and claims a 76 per cent ‘clinically significant improvement’ rate among those patients he discharges.”

Timimi argues that changing cultural attitudes to childhood has privileged narrow measures of ability like exam results and conformity at the expense of creativity. Schools are under pressure to deliver. They pass this pressure onto the children and children are rebelling. This is driving the upward trend in diagnosis of ADHD and the resultant use of drugs to manage behaviour in schools.

As well as medicalizing troubled behaviour Sutcliffe examines the notion that the ADHD bandwagon is expanding to take in normal childhood behaviour.

“Matthew Smith, senior lecturer in history at the University of Strathclyde, and author of Hyperactive: The Controversial History of ADHD, goes even further in his criticism of the medical orthodoxy. He believes the diagnostic threshold is now so low that it has led us to a place where we have pathologised naughtiness as a mental disorder requiring medication. ‘And not just naughtiness,’ he adds. ‘All sorts of children, simply those that daydream and don’t pay attention, could now be diagnosed with ADHD and placed on medication.’

“Timimi sees it specifically as a pathologisation of maleness (boys tend to find it harder to sit still in a confined classroom), while a report in Time magazine cited a psychologist describing the symptoms of ADHD as ‘everything that adults don’t like about children’.”

RESPONSE

I do not agree that only conditions with clear biological markers can be reliably diagnosed or even said to exist. Timimi, in his book, The Myth of Autism, proposes a similar argument to that cited by Sutcliffe in relation to ADHD; namely that autism is the medicalising of men’s and boys’ social and emotional competence. In the absence of any drug treatments for autism, Timimi raises the ogre of the Autism Industry as a substitute villain for Big Pharma in his autism narrative. I dealt with this in my review of his book, “The Myth of Autism.

The lack of biological markers is common in many conditions. But clinicians continue to recognize and diagnose them based on behavioural manifestations. Timimi himself must have diagnostic criteria which he uses to identify suitable cases for his NHA therapy. Like ADHD autism has no biological markers. Like ADHD brain scans have found differences in brain development and function, but not consistently across populations. Like ADHD autism often runs in families but genetic studies have failed to isolate an “autism gene.” Autism and ADHD are both spectrum conditions in which a variety of genes have been identified. Autism and ADHD are often found together. Recent research suggests that if ADHD is diagnosed first an autism diagnosis is often delayed or missed altogether.

My son is autistic. He was diagnosed based on a clinical assessment of him and a developmental history taken from his parents by a trained clinician. Comparable assessments are in place for ADHD. As a teacher I regularly used to complete ratings scales for pupils suspected of having ADHD. Clinicians used these alongside parental interviews and direct observations of the pupil in order to make their decisions.

Timimi’s critique of the medicalization of behaviour is not without merit. People are driven to the edge by the pressures they face. Rather than deal with those pressures, the institutions of state, be they medical, judicial or political will medicalize, criminalize or demonize society’s victims rather than address their grievances. But we also have to address their grief. Children with ADHD are often in genuine distress. Their disorder has been validated by clinical research. We have to address their individual needs for care and treatment as well as addressing the political, social and economic background to their situation.

MEDICATION

If ADHD is a diagnosis that is open to question then we ought to be concerned that the treatment of choice is not Timimi’s group therapy. Instead, the treatment of choice is methylphenidate, usually prescribed under the brand names Ritalin and Concerta. Because it is an appetite suppressant it can have a negative impact on growth in children. It is related to amphetamines and there are concerns about dependency and the possibility that it might exacerbate suicidal tendencies and self-harm in subjects with additional psychiatric problems.

“Professor Tim Kendall, consultant psychiatrist and member of the group that developed NICE’s clinical guidelines on ADHD, has said: ‘If you take Ritalin for a year, it’s likely to reduce your growth by about three-quarters of an inch… I think there’s also increasing evidence that it precipitates self-harming behaviour in children, and we have absolutely no evidence that the use of Ritalin reduces the long-term problems associated with ADHD.’

“So why, if the evidence for the disorder is so shaky, and if the medication has significant drawbacks, with NICE explicitly not recommending drugs as a first-line treatment for school-age children, is Ritalin prescription on an ever-increasing curve? Scepticism towards ADHD as a phenomenon tends to be silenced with a simple retort: ‘Ritalin works.’

“And it does. A child who is inattentive, impulsive, and struggling at school, given Ritalin or another similar stimulant, will often demonstrate a marked improvement in behaviour and academic attainment within days.”

All drugs have side effects. Doctors have to exercise clinical judgement when deciding whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Timimi acknowledges that the short term benefits are genuine but argues that long term use yields no better results than non-pharmaceutical interventions that do not have the same side effects. So why are prescriptions on the rise? The reason given in the article is the power of Big Pharma. The drug companies pay vast sums to market their products and hire experts, who sometimes conceal their conflict of interest, to attest to their safety and efficacy.

RESPONSE

I hold no brief for Big Pharma. But unless governments are prepared to take on the cost of medical research and development and fund our public research institutions accordingly the drug companies will continue to shoulder the commercial risk and seek to maximize returns on the successful drugs that do make it to market. And they will cross ethical lines when doing so. It is unfortunate that the two high profile beneficiaries of Pharma Gold quoted in the article earned their money promoting drugs for Bi-Polar disorder and not ADHD. I do not doubt that similar shenanigans will emerge in relation to Ritalin, Concerta etc. But it would have strengthened Sutcliffe’s argument if he had been able to cite specific examples rather than these two undeniably egregious but well known examples.

The NICE guidelines for treatment of ADHD are plain. No drug treatment for children under six. No drug treatment for mild to moderate cases of ADHD until after alternative treatment options have been tried. Regular clinical assessments and pauses in medication to see if drugs are still necessary. Where children are prescribed drug treatments they and their parents should also be offered psychological support. It is not unethical practice from the drug companies that is behind the breaches to the NICE guidelines. There is a crisis of funding in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which means that the sort of treatments offered by Timimi, while recommended by NICE, are simply not available in many areas. We may debate the reasons why it is so hard to be a child in Britain today but children are suffering and the services they need are being cut under the government’s austerity programme. Even at the outrageous prices charged by the drug companies, and cheaper, generic versions are available, medication often comes cheaper than employing mental health professionals. In these cash strapped times health authorities may feel they have no choice.

DLA

Overall Sutcliffe has offered a well-argued if sometimes provocative position. However he descends into sensationalism with this statement.

Children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to develop, says scientists Yet none of these doubts about the ADHD juggernaut come close to the greatest scandal of all. I was originally drawn to this topic as a novelist following a single conversation with a consultant child psychiatrist who related to me a professional worry of hers. She was concerned that some families might be pushing for a Ritalin prescription for their child not because of genuine medical worries, but because an ADHD diagnosis makes a family eligible for Disability Living Allowance.

RESPONSE

In thirty two years as a teacher in special education I can only recall one family that remotely resembles this picture. All their children did have special needs. The family decided to exploit their status to extract the maximum from the welfare state in a manner similar to those who exploit the anomalies in the tax system to minimize their tax burden.

As the parent of a son with Asperger Syndrome I can also testify to immense difficulty in claiming DLA, even with a bona fide diagnosis. You have to fill in a detailed questionnaire describing the impact that the condition has upon your lives. This has to be endorsed by a professional who fills in their own section of the form. The severity of the difficulties you face determines the size of the payment. If Ritalin is as good as is claimed in the article at mitigating the effects of ADHD, surely that would militate against eligibility for DLA because the condition was being managed with medication and did not make excessive demands on parents and carers? I am well aware that the plural of anecdote is not data. Sutcliffe provides a single anecdote for his argument. I see your anecdote and raise you one.

If poverty is indeed driving some parents to exploit their children in order to game the system I see that as an indictment of our present socio-economic system as much as it is an indictment of the parents. And it is true that poverty has long lasting effects on the mental development of children. Research has found that children growing up in poverty are more prone to mental disorders including ADHD. While internal disorders like anxiety and depression improve when a person’s life chances improve and they move out of their bad situation, get a decent job etc., externally directed disorders like ADHD persist even when life circumstances improve. Was the ADHD caused by poverty and became permanent or was it always there and poverty provided the trigger? I do not know. I do know that our son’s DLA kept us out of poverty when we eventually got it, four years after his diagnosis and helped him make a success of his adult life.

CONCLUSION

The voices of those with ADHD were noticeable by their absence from this article. This is a weakness. As with movements for autism rights and autism self-advocacy, ADDers embrace their diagnosis as a badge of identity while recognizing that it is a neurodevelopmental condition that requires greater public understanding and awareness. They are not the passive victims of an unequal struggle between brave maverick doctors and the weight of the medical and educational establishment. ADHD is now recognized as a condition that continues into adulthood. Celebrity ADDults are coming forward to demonstrate both the positives and the negatives of ADHD. Some of their voices would have added weight to Sutcliffe’s conclusion that,

“children should be reminded that ‘failing’ at school is not failing as a human being. Many of the most creative and successful people only find their path through life in adulthood. Being different is not an illness.”