Gale`s View from Westminster – June 2015
June. The early part of the month is dominated by the EU, migrants swarming at Calais, the corruption pains of FIFA`s Mr. Blatter, Greek debt and the premature death of the former Liberal Leader Charles Kennedy. Then there were the anniversaries, of Magna Carta and The Battle of Waterloo. Professor Sir Tim, Nobel laureate, was witch-hunted out of University College, London , The `topless backpacker` who offended a mountain was bounced out of Malaysia in short order , we learned that the Palace of Westminster is sinking gracefully into the Isle of Westminster (did you know that Westminster is an island?) and the Robin Redbreast emerged as Britain`s Top Twitter. And then came the beach massacre in Tunisia and suddenly every other item of news dropped off the agenda and the radar.
The House of Commons is held in low regard by many people, partly as a result of self-inflicted injuries and at least in part as a result of gross media mis-representation. (Before the televising of the House the electorate was ill informed. Now they are mis-informed). There still moments, though, when the House rises to an occasion. The tragically early death of the former Liberal Leader, Charles Kennedy and the tributes that followed in the Chamber was one such.
Another, still more sombre and literally dreadful, was the statement that followed the murders in cold blood of so many United Kingdom citizens on the beaches of Tunisia. These were, after all, people young and old going about their lawful business and endeavouring to relax in the Mediterranean sunshine. In one moment they were laughing and happy and alive and in the next some thirty of them, as we now know, were dead or maimed leaving bereaved families in deep shock. The Members of Parliament representing those families stood, once the principals had had their say, in a successive litany to express on the record their condolences to the communities that had lost people that they loved very dearly. It would be easy, tempting even, to over-react under such circumstances and indeed some of the old and once bold “send a gunboat” armchair warriors are reported in the press to have done exactly that. The Commons, though, presented a calm, dignified and stoic representation of sorrow on the one hand and a determination that this act of callous slaughter, perpetrated by those who should not be glorified by association with either Islam or Statehood, would not be allowed to change the way of life of the civilised world.
I, for reasons of history rather than design, have been the Chairman of the British/Tunisia All-Party Parliamentary Group. I have visited the country to meet its Leaders, both pre and post dictatorship, on a number of occasions and I was in Sidi Bou Said, the seat of the Jasmine Revolution, for the first democratic elections after the fall of President Ben Ali. Tunisia has hitherto represented the one beacon of light that has shined in the darkness that has swept across North Africa and The Middle East since the start of the `Arab Spring`. The country is a well-educated, emancipated and tolerant society that by and large has chosen to live in harmony rather than discord. Its people are kind and gentle and generous and hospitable. They are also industrious and have worked hard, even after the killings that took place in the wonderful Bardo Museum of Mosaics in Tunis, to rebuild the tourist trade that has been the cornerstone of their economy and such hopes for prosperity as exist.
As our Prime Minister has said, these attacks could and do take place anywhere in the World. The London underground and bus bombings are a stark reminder of that fact. Tunisia was clearly singled out by terrorists, though, precisely because it has been a demonstration of co-existence and success that the mad assassins preaching hatred cannot tolerate. Tunisia has given the lie to the kind of world that they wish to dominate and the clear attempt to undermine the economy by decimating the tourist industry is their reaction. It is easy to say this and much harder to realise but they must not, in the interests of the entire free world, be allowed to succeed.
One of the many and grim side effects of terrorism and insurrection has been the tide of potential immigrants from East Africa, from Syria, from Iraq and Iran and from further afield, that has sought to reach, by whatever precarious means possible, Europe and, on many occasions, Britain. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are accommodated in tented mini-cities on the Turkish/Syrian border and more still have fled south to Jordan.
A mixture of genuine such refugees and asylum seekers, together with economic migrants from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan has become easy prey for people traffickers that have exploited their misery and vulnerability and aspirations for financial gain. And so it is that unseaworthy boatloads of such human beings have washed ashore in Italy and on the Greek Islands. Some, the lucky ones, have been intercepted by HMS Bulwark, the British capital ship tasked with the duty of interdiction, and have been returned alive to Libya or landed in Italy. Many more have simply perished.
The majority of these `passengers` are young single men. If you have no livestock and no job and you cannot earn a living then you cannot own a house and if you cannot own a house then you cannot get married and have children and there is no future and no hope. You then either radicalise and join the terrorists, who in return for total loyalty will look after you, or you seek to escape to the streets of Britain that are known to be paved with gold. Via Calais.
The Mayor of Calais, Mme. Natacha Bouchard, presents this as a “British” problem caused by the draw of our benefits system. She does not like the fact that her town is now playing host to at least three thousand illegal migrants who have travelled across Europe, without claiming asylum, in order to reach the United Kingdom as stowaways in cars and trucks or on shuttle trains. She would like to border moved to Dover, s`il vous plait. Other French commentators and politicians blame our “black economy” for their tribulations but few, if any, point the finger not across the Channel but at Paris which is where at least part of the problem lies.
The tide of migrants has swept across the European mainland because, to follow the metaphor through, the sea walls have been removed. Under the Schengen Convention, to which most European countries but not Britain are signed up, the internal borders and therefore passport controls and vehicle checks have been removed in the interests of `freedom of movement`. Once you are in France – which includes, for example, Martinique, the world is your Euro-oyster and you may move seamlessly in search of employment, or benefits, to suit your purpose. Whether this has in fact benefitted economic growth is a moot point but what is certain is that the Dublin Convention, under which asylum seekers are supposed to claim asylum in the first safe haven reached after leaving the land in which they are subject to persecution, in honoured more in the breach than in the observation.
There has to be a twin-track solution to this situation. First, and contrary to common assumption, most of those seeking a new life are doing so not out of preference but out of desperation. The situation at `home` is so hard, so dangerous, so without hope that they see no alternative but to leave and to look for a better alternative and that drives them towards Europe. Because many speak at least a little English – the price we pay for being an international language – they head for Britain. Given a choice, stability and opportunity to survive and thrive, they would return to, or stay at, their homelands with their families, their cultures and traditions and the graves of their forbears. Only an adventurous few would choose, given a reasonable alternative, to uproot and go in search of a Brave New World. Overseas Aid from both Britain and the rest of Europe has, therefore, to be targeted at in-country development of economies and democracy. To do otherwise and to seek to accommodate all-comers from all places is a short-term and unworkable response that serves only to feed the pockets of the people traffickers who depend upon the `market` for their ill-gotten gains.
Harsh though it may seem we do, also, need to make it plain that illegal migration is not acceptable. That is not a `British` problem. We have, albeit not always rigorously enough, sought to maintain our border controls. It is a mainland European problem and no how much it may stick in the gullet of Frau Merkel and other preachers of the “Freedom of Movement” gospel, the EU needs to tear up the Schengen Convention and re-introduce the national border controls that, privately, I suspect a majority of the citizens of what are still sovereign states would welcome. That might lead to a modicum of inconvenience of the kind that those using the Port of Calais or the Dartford Tunnel experience daily but in terms not only of the control of immigration but of security would it not be welcome? “Freedom of movement”, after all, applies to terrorists as well as to the law-abiding.
Speaking of the abiding of law brings us next to M. Joseph Blatter and his cronies. In the context of the serious and life-changing matters that face us the wheelings and dealings of the Capo di Capi of the FIFA Mafia, who likes to be known a “Sepp”, are really of small consequence. Or they would be were it not for the fact that some regard the game of football as a religion while others see the less-than-beautiful game as a source of money and political power. Does it matter that a bunch of crooks award the forthcoming World Cup competitions to a Russia that is otherwise the subject of international sanctions or to a repressive regime in the Middle East on the basis of the payment of some rather substantial backhanders? Yes, unfortunately it does. Because the World Cup, like Strictly Come dancing, is held in such high esteem that it bestows – or has done until now, a degree of respectability upon the host Country that is out of all proportion to the reality a few grown men kicking a ball around. Following a thorough investigation by the FBI and the arrest of a number of senior FIFA officials it looks as though the net may at last be closing around the seventy-nine year old M. Blatter. At last even the notoriously `discreet` authorities in the country that harbours the FIFA Headquarters, Switzerland, have woken up to the fact that there might be an embarrassment on their non-combatant doorstep and have begun investigations. As a result the aforesaid “Sepp” has found it necessary to announce his resignation from the Presidency. Only not just yet and, at the time of writing, the 2018 World cup will still be held in the neo-Soviet Union.
Sitting in the high chair in the Chamber of the House of Commons as an interim deputy Speaker, as I was invited to do while the long-term Deputies were being elected, gives a different and interesting view of the House. Presiding over part of the debates on the Queen`s Speech over five days I listened to a number of newly elected, bright and ambitious young Members of Parliament make their “maiden speeches”. These are strange devices demanding by convention, over a very limited amount of time, a description of the new Member`s constituency as the second Garden of Eden, praise for the predecessor, of whatever political party and however awful, as a dedicated, much-loved and sorely to-be-missed representative of Pig`s Bottom and the Wolds South, and then a fleeting reference to the matter under debate – in this case the programme for the forthcoming session of Parliament. My personal view is that, notwithstanding the desire to put the “maiden” behind one and to get stuck in, it is a mistake to use the debate on the Gracious Speech for this purpose because contributions are inevitably time- limited and three or five minutes is insufficient to cram in all of the required ingredients. There were, though, some brave, thoughtful and moving moments in the course of the five days during which I had the privilege to preside.
One of them was not the less than virginal submission made by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, formerly the Member of Parliament for Henley and now reincarnated in the seat previously occupied by the retired and wonderful senior Whip Sir John Randall. Boris is taking time out from turning the streets of London into a playground for militant cyclists, impassable to other forms of traffic, to pursue his Not-the-Leadership ambitions. In a less-than-Maiden speech Mayor Boris raised, as did many others, the matter of the EU Referendum, the paving bill for which is currently before the Commons before wending its contentious way through the Lords. If the Prime Minister cannot get a good deal out of re-negotiation with Europe, quoth Johnson, then he should walk away from the EU. Good, characteristically populist, not-the-Leadership campaigning stuff.
The starting gun has of course been fired not only on the race for the future Leadership of the Conservative Party and Premiership but also upon the Referendum Campaign. With dark threats of Ministers having to toe the Government line during any pre-EU Referendum skirmishes the Europhile Ken Clarke and the Eurosceptic John Redwood have both called for those same Ministers to be freed from the shackles of collective responsibility and to speak their own minds in support of whichever side of the In/Out argument they choose. Man David then announces that the suggestion that Ministers would have to quit their posts to campaign for an “out” vote have been “misinterpreted”. During a tour of Heads of State the Prime Minister has received a “no renegotiations” message from Romania, Belgium, Finland and Spain while the President of the EU Parliament, Herr Martin Schultz tells us that the campaign for reforms is “driven by lies and hate”. In a moment of schadenfreude he helpfully adds that “Britain belongs to the EU”, a quote which may have suffered in translation but is designed to get up the noses of most of the population of the United Kingdom! That French frites-wrapping Le Monde, meanwhile, tells us that “Brexit could be your Waterloo”. Sorry, at the risk of upsetting our French friends, it was Wellington, not the Little Emperor that, two hundred years ago on the eighteenth of June, won that day.
“Business Leaders” are telling Cameron to retake powers from the EU or leave, if you believe the Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid that, following the Prime Minister`s initial skirmish, screams “PM Leaves EU Summit Empty Handed”. The Daily Mail is clearly vying with the Daily Express for the “Worst Tabloid with a Falling Circulation” award. In fact, the consensus is that while there was no breakthrough moment Cameron has opened the door on a number of possibilities that may yet lead us back towards a Common Market, the restoration of sovereignty and Lesser Closer Union. While others may shelter under Britannia`s skirts it is wrong and foolish to assume that it is only the UK that is looking for change. This has caused some alarm in an “Out at Any Price” camp.
At the time of writing – on the day of the Greek referendum – “Out At Any Price” seems to be the message from Alexis Tsipras, one of those politicians who is prepared to fight to the last drop of somebody else`s blood for what he, or Vladimir Putin, believes in. (Too cynical? We shall see, but dangerous to comment further on this of all days!) Inevitably the wreckage of the Greek economy dominated much of Europe and, by association, much of Westminster, throughout the month of June. We may not, thank God, be in the Eurozone but a “Grexit” would have a knock-on effect that could cost us all dear. By the middle of last month there was what amounted to a state of emergency in Greece. Banks, we were told, would be “shut within days” but a euro-bung of two million Euros staved off that moment for a very short time. A last-minute `plan` put forward by Tsipras arrived to avert chaos at the inevitable crisis talks in Brussels and with time running out the Greek Prime Minister decided to put the proposed EU bailout deal to a referendum which, inevitably, has morphed into an In or Out of the Eurozone vote. More next month as the chickens come home to roost.
In other news the future of the Salford broadcasting Corporation, aka The BBC, is making headlines – at least on the BBC. Top Luvvie Alan Yentob avers that less than 50% of TV viewers want to retain the license fee as the BBC`1s source of revenue. If a rumoured five-year freeze on income is imposed during the Charter Renewal negotiations there will have to be £500 million of cuts in a budget of which, it transpires, only £2.4 billion of £5.1 billion, which is less than 50%, is spent making programmes. (How much of that is to be spent employing Chris Evans as the replacement for Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear is not yet known). In “Broadcast” magazine Lord (Tony) Hall, the current Director General, says that “The ecology of the BBC works – don`t screw it”. Works for who? is the question arising from that comment. Perhaps the abolition of the BBC Trust, at present under the Chairmanship of a Rona Fairhead who has courted too much controversy, and the transfer of its powers to OFCOM, the broadcast and communications regulator, might be a step in the right direction. For 92 years control of the BBC has been in house but that regime looks as though it may be past its sell-by date.
Mind you, the transfer of powers away from self-regulation is not always without teething pains. When Parliament gave the duty of the control of expenses and salaries to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority the movement was welcomed by a gleeful media which saw this as a loosening of the hands of the House of Commons on the reins of power. Now that IPSA has recommended a revenue-neutral pay settlement for Members of Parliament that involves a reduction in expenses and allowances and an increase in salaries the Daily Mail (it might also have been the self-righteous Torygraph) yells that “MPs are in a mess of their own making”. Either you want independent control and scrutiny or you do not. It is, though, now out of the hands of Parliament.
The Nobel Laureate Professor Sir Tim Hunt has had an interesting month from which he has emerged, I think, with rather more credit than those dismal puritans who sought to hound him out of office. Sir Tim, you may recall, made some jocular but, taken out of context as of course they were, unfortunate remarks about lady scientists “falling in love and crying” during a lengthy and otherwise serious and considered speech to an academic audience in the Far East. By the time that he landed back at Heathrow the Press was baying for his blood and he was forced to resign an honorary professorship at the University College London. Far from being the “sexist” that he was portrayed as, however, it emerges that not only does Sir Tim “do the chores” at home but the has the affection, respect and support of Nobel Laureates and female scientist alike and that the latter are horrified that he has been pilloried for what was, at worst, an ill-considered throw-away line. The high-and-mighty President and Provost of UCL, one Professor Michael Arthur, has said that his institution will not reinstate Sir Tim (who by now probably does not wish to be reinstated anyway) because “we consider that gender equality is more important” and that Honorary positions are supposed to “bring honour to the University” rather than “shame and ridicule”. It now transpires that the woman who released an abridged version of Professor Sir Tim Hunt`s comments to the press, Ms. Connie St. Louis, may not be quite all that her claims about her own `achievements` might suggest. Will UCL now investigate? This is a question that I have put to Professor Arthur in writing and I await his response, which I will report to you, with great interest.
David Miliband, currently heading up the International Rescue Committee in New York, has hinted at a possible return to UK politics “If second-raters fail “the Leadership of the Labour Party. That boat sailed some time ago Mr. Miliband. There are others now waiting in the wings.
Her Maj may or may not have been amused by a twitter released by Ahmen Khawaja, a BBC Current Affairs producer. While Her Maj was undergoing a routine health check in the King Edward VII hospital Ms. Khawaja, mistaking a rehearsal for broadcasts of the death of “a senior Member of the Royal Family” for the real thing, prematurely broke the news that our Sovereign had died!
Speaking in Germany Her Maj, referring to the situation in Ukraine, made a plea for “unity in Europe”. There were those who said that she was treading where angels fear to tread politically while others suggested that her speech had been badly written for her and that she did not realise the nature of the eggshells upon which she was walking. The latter is what Mr. Gerald Rattner might have described as “crap”. You bet she knew exactly what she was saying, and why.
It is reported that “The Legacy” Blair has been paid £330k for a twenty-minute speech at an “Eat Food Forum” in Sweden. On the subject of hunger.
Hunger for money, perhaps?
In Leeds a parking warden who slapped a ticket on a wheelbarrow full of paving slabs has been described as “over-zealous”.
And a Coventry shopper has received a £70 fine for overstaying in a car park. The motorist was unable to leave because the car park itself was gridlocked.
Nine year old Atticus has been banned from taking his Mother`s lesbian partner to Blean Primary School, near Canterbury, on “Take your Father to School Day”. Discrimination or not?
Jane Warner, the model whose patted derriere featured prominently on the cover of Jilly Cooper`s `bonkbuster` novel “Riders” has revealed that her jodhpur-clad backside has been slimmed down since the original 1985 publication and that a male hand has been re-located to her hip. “Society is more enlightened about women`s bodies now” says the publisher. “There`s nothing naught but nice any more” says Ms. Warner.
The Salford Broadcasting Corporation has invented a new game for us. The thought police has, for a new production of Arthur Ransome`s “Swallows and Amazons”, renamed one of the heroines, Titty, as “Tatty” in case young viewers with smutty minds might get the wrong idea. I am now inviting you to send (to the BBC please, not to me) your own suggestions for works of fact or fiction that are clearly in need of sanitising for the benefit of an “enlightened” audience. Thinking of radio 4`s “Tweet of the Day” I myself will be sending in Blue Tats and Coal Tats and possibly even Great Tats.
Belgium minted two hundred thousand 2-euro coins to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. This offended French sensibilities and the coin was vetoed for fear of “unfavourable reaction”. There is, however no right of euro-veto over “irregular denominations” so, no doubt to great “sounds of revelry by night” Belgium`s capital has issued a 2.5 euro coin bearing the Waterloo impression.
Lord Ashcroft has offered to by the now-infamous relic of the 2015 general election, the “Edstone” for £100 thousand. What a brick.
Under article Three of the Human Rights Act a judge has ordered that a suspected terrorist “who has mental health problems” cannot be compelled to wear a tag “because he thinks that it is a bomb”. Hmmmmm. Now there`s an idea.
When my old chum Alan Titchmarsh talked about “bastard trenching , a respectable gardening term, on the BBC Breakfast Show the politically correct “presenter” felt compelled to apologise in case any viewers were offended. Reminds me of the farmer`s wife who, when her husband was reprimanded by a Ministry of Agriculture Inspector for referring to “manure” instead of “compost” said “For God`s sake don`t tell `un that sir, it`s taken us ten year to get `un to call it manure”.
The definition of “Poshness” has been in the news. Dreadful joke of the month; “What is a crèche”? “A creche is something that happens when two cars collide”.
The Right Honourable Charles Kennedy MP, former Leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. Those of us who knew him well are proud to have enjoyed his friendship and his humour. His young son, Donald, was in the Commons gallery to hear the tributes and will, I hope, take some comfort from the respect and affection in which is Father was so obviously held on both sides of the House.
Sir Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools at OFSTED and a champion of those seeking to overcome and eliminate low academic expectations.
Patrick McNee, at the age of 93. Star, with Honor Blackman and subsequently Diana Rigg, of the 1960`s “Avengers” television series. Trademark steel-rimmed bowler hat and umbrella swordstick. Having served during the Second World War on Motor Torpedo Boats he eschewed the use of guns on the screen.
“Speed”, a Galapagos tortoise, aged 150, at California`s San Diego zoo where he has been resident since 1933. He is survived by thirteen close relatives from the Volcan Cerro Azul Islands.
George Kirby and Doreen Luckie have married in Eastbourne. George is 103 years old and his bride is 91 giving them, for those that can do sums, a combined age of 194. They have, between them, seven children, fifteen grandchildren and seven great grand-children. They may not reach a Golden Wedding Day together, but we can at least wish them a happy marriage!