Gale's View from Westminster – November 2015
November. All war and little peace, never mind joy. Blood in the desert, blood on the streets of Paris, blood also shed in Mali. Even Bloody Sunday has returned to haunt the armed forces. Not the choicest ingredients for satire. Schengen "partially comatose", Tyson`s fury and Corbyn on the ropes. A Primate`s faith challenged, Brussels in lockdown, the drums of conflict beat around Westminster, will Cam Force One get lift-off? On the brighter side, Chancellor George pulls autumn bunnies out of the Cap of State, Her Maj and husband re-visit old haunts in The Med and the Davis Cup overflows with British pride for the first time since the reign of Good King Fred.
If there was any doubt in the mind of even the most live-hard pacifist that we are dealing, in Daesh, with an incarnation, a death-cult, and embodiment of pure evil then the television footage of a tiny shoe lying amongst the wreckage of an aircraft blown apart above the Sinai desert while carrying young families back to Russia from holidays in Sharm el Sheikh ought to be testimony enough. The plane en route to St. Petersburg was flying at thirty-six thousand feet when it developed what was first reported as a "technical fault". The self-styled `IS` then claimed the responsibility for the two hundred and twenty-two lives lost in what turned out not to be a rocket attack, as originally suggested, but a bomb planted in the luggage hold while the aircraft was on the ground at Sharm. Immediately following the loss of Metrojet KGL 9268, Air France and Lufthansa announced that they were re-routing flights away from the Sinai desert. Other airlines followed suit and then, when the bomb-theory gathered legs all flights into and out of Sharm were grounded and stranded twenty-thousand British visitors and some sixty thousand Russians and others with no means of getting home. Russian scepticism and a rejection of a bomb plot turned to anger as British and American analysis of social media and other communications `chatter` underpinned the assertion that this was, indeed, a terrorist attack upon innocent civilians. While thousands of tourists, short of cash and patience, languished in hotels or in the departure lounges desperate to get home another one hundred and seventy thousand would-be holidaymakers, my own family amongst them, found themselves forced to cancel vacation plans between November and Christmas. All of those people have to remember that, unlike those lying in the Sinai desert and including a little wearer of the shoe, who must have been about the same age as my own about-to-travel grand-daughter, they are alive. Whether they have by now been reunited with the luggage that they were forced to leave behind I know not but after three days on the front pages of the tabloid newspapers the story moved on and was overtaken by other and equally terrible events. All of that, though, has left in pieces the lives of grieving families in St. Petersburg and an Egyptian tourist economy in meltdown and with no means of delivering visitors. It is said that flights to Sharm el Sheikh may resume "at some time in the New Year" and those of us who have in the past enjoyed the friendship, kindness and hospitality of great and generous people owe it to them to return as swiftly as we can. How many hotels will have, in the meantime, closed and how many jobs will have been lost only time will tell but if the Tunisian experience is anything to go by, following the beach massacre in that country, then the road to recovery will be long and hard. Which is, of course, precisely the damage that the murderers have sought to inflict. They have harnessed instability and sent it into battle in support of their revolting and perverted cause.
Paris. Most of us who visit France regularly have friends who live and work in the capital city and most of us, therefore, know people who were touched by the slaughter that left more than a hundred dead and many more physically injured and emotionally scarred for life. In my own case my young friend who works for a French TV station is mercifully okay but two of her friends and colleagues were in the Bataclan concert venue when the shooting started. One of those girls was seriously injured and the other is dead.
It began at the Stade du France where a 'friendly' soccer match between France and Germany was in progress. A suicide bomber tried to gain entry but was intercepted by a brave security guard and detonated outside the stadium. What emerged subsequently as an orchestrated campaign of murder then spread across that quarter of the city via the Le Carillon Bar/ Restaurant and Le Petit Cambode and culminating in the slaughter at the concert hall where the American band Eagles of Death Metal were playing to a packed House. Faced with killers carrying AK47 guns and wearing suicide vests the armed operatives of the police and special forces found themselves wading through a sea of blood and bodies and having to ignore the dead and wounded while attempting to take out the assailants and at the city's St. Louis Hospital the scene resembled a war zone . The man alleged to have masterminded this series of assaults was hunted down and killed at the end of a seven- hour siege in the suburb of St. Denis. Through the fog of a carefully co-ordinated campaign of cold-blooded assassination aimed very largely at young people and sports fans simply out and having fun has emerged a catalogue of errors and failures of intelligence systems that have exposed the weaknesses in the Schengen open- border policy. Freedom of movement may be a very fine mantra but when it allows not merely thousands of illegal immigrants but also carloads of Daesh fighters carrying an arsenal of weapons to move seamlessly between Germany and Belgium and France without challenge and while the European Commission appears to have ignored Frontex warnings of impending attack then it cannot be surprising that Schengen is under some stress. The President of the august Commission, Herr Juncker, may seek to resist the imposition of national border controls and hint darkly that the end of Schengen would mean the end of the Eurozone ( why?) but the amalgamation of refugees and terrorist activity lead Mr Hollande to talk of a " return to borders of barbed wire" and it is not long before the Juncker is, if not doing a handbrake- turn, at least conceding in Pythonesque language , that Schengen is, if not actually "deceased" , at the very least " partially comatose”. The German EU Commissioner acknowledges with candour that his country’s asylum policy has “acted as a magnet for refugees" and within that tide of migrants, it is now clear, Daesh killers have slipped through the soft under belly of the European Union to ply their trade in death. Fifty three per cent of those living within the Schengen area now say that they want out. That totemic European is about to collapse.
Tricolours fly at half-mast from every flagpole and the Marseillaise is sung in various degrees of appalling but appreciated French at another friendly soccer match at a Wembley stadium in the presence of the Young Royals where, to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the battle of Agincourt, England beat France 2-0. But the scoreline does not seem to matter and expressions of sympathy and solidarity flow from all corners of the House of Commons. We are, indubitably, a prime target and it will only be a question of time - not "if" but " when" - before London or some other UK iconic location or major population centre faces another successful terrorist attack. It is, though, on mainland Europe that sports fixtures are cancelled and Brussels, the very heart of the European Project, goes into lockdown with its schools, metro systems and restaurants closed under the guidance of that country's intelligence chiefs. There are suggestions that the cross- channel ferries should carry airline- style armed `sea marshals`, as Europe tries, belatedly, to close the doors and the scare of chemical warfare raises its head again. We shall never know, of course, whether the threat to Brussels was real or imagined but what is certain is that the reality has not gone away and the Belgium based known terrorist Salah Abdelsalam is still at large.
While the Bourgeoise Women's Tabloid and other frites-wrappings do their best to whip up a storm of "Not Islamaphopbia" (" Did you know that there are now forty-four million Muslims now living in Europe"?) on the back of the attacks in Sharm and Paris and, of course Bamako , the drums of war begin to roll. It is easy, in our Western cocoon, to overlook the capital of Mali and the attack that left more murdered might scarcely have been reported had it not been upon a hotel hosting a significant number of - shock! horror! - white people but the 27 victims are just as dead and the families just as bereaved as all the others. In Paris M. Hollande announces that his country is at war with Daesh and coalition talks that will inevitably involve British aircraft in attacks on Syria commence. The Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition may, as a pacifist, believe in his assertion that our police officers should not, if facing terrorist, adopt a shoot- to- kill policy but elsewhere the pendulum of opinion that only a couple of years ago vetoed military activity over Syria has swung as pendulums do. Will the House of Commons vote again upon the issue? Not, says Man David, unless there is sufficient support on the Opposition benches to enable the Government to carry the day. He will not risk another humiliating defeat and with the Scottish Nationalists whipped against action it will be left to a split Labour Party to convince the Government's business managers (whips) that there are sufficient numbers willing to defy Red Jerry and give the go-ahead to join our allies, the United States, France and others, in bombing Daesh command and control centres and oil pipelines in Syria. Given that relatively recently to House voted overwhelmingly in support of air support in neighbouring Iraq it might seem like a no-brainer to suggest that our planes might fly across a border that, in reality, is not recognised by the enemy and is therefore imaginary. Such foolish thoughts depend upon a cold logic that, in the foetid atmosphere of the Committee Room within which the Parliamentary Labour Party meets, does not exist. Some sixty Labour Party MPs, including some Shadow Cabinet members, are said to want to support a motion backing military action in Syria but under party and constituency pressure will they stand fast or will they buckle under the eye of Corbyn's Whips? An opinion poll may say that sixty per cent of the public want Britain to bomb Syria but they are not able to go through the voting lobbies in Parliament and politics is a numbers game.
In the Parliamentary Labour Party there is something approaching civil war of a kind normally, these days, only experienced within the Tory Party when Europe is discussed. When mass recognitions from the Shadow Cabinet are on the cards and when there is open rebellion and hostility on the Opposition Front Bench then even such a Leader as Comrade Jerry ought to recognise that he is in deep, deep trouble. The Denis Healey First Rule of Holesmanship is "when you are in one, stop digging" but Red Jerry seems hell - bent on self- destruction. Why else would he, almost within minutes of a placatory meeting with his senior troops, mail out what one Shadow Cabinet member described as " a thoroughly dishonest" letter to his MPs? With the Prime Minister saying, in terms, that "We must address the threat - now" and the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell calling for a free, unwhipped vote on the 'to bomb or not to bomb' question there has to be a vote in the Commons in the immediate future . The Cameron case rests upon “attack or be attacked" and given that we are, as I have already indicated, what the Prime Minister endearingly describes as a "tier one target” then “If it were done, then 'twere well it were done quickly." The very particular skills of the RAF are needed in the skies over Syria.
The pro-action cause receives a boost from the United Nations where Resolution 2249 calls for “all necessary measures to crush ISIL”. General the Lord Dannatt, Chief of General Staff between 2006 and 2009 calls for " boots on the ground" and the arming of Syrian refugees willing to return and fight. Following a meeting between Man David and M. Hollande it is agreed that French aircraft shall be allowed to fly from our British Sovereign Base at Akrotiri in Cyprus. One more tentative step towards military commitment. Will British aircraft, also, soon be flying missions over Syria from Akrotiri? And, taking up General Dannatt's call, will our Eastern Mediterranean base become a stepping stone for Special Forces if, indeed, it is not already employed for that clandestine purpose?
The British Medical Association, also, has been ' stirring up conflict` if you believe, and I do, the Secretary of State for Health. Jeremy Hunt wants Junior Hospital Doctors to work to a new deal as part of his drive to create a seven-day a week National Health Service and to eliminate the sub- standard performance of hospitals at weekends that, he believes, costs lives. He has been willing, since June when the row first blew up, to sit down with the Doctors' Trade Union and to talk but he reserves the right, as the politician in ultimate charge of the health service, to take the final decisions. That is his job and it is also, for some who would appear to prefer the grievance to the solution, the sticking point. The Doctors' shop steward, who does not apparently like having to work at weekends, has not been prepared to talk 'with pre-conditions’. The ' pre-condition ' in this case is the right of the Secretary of State to take decisions. As a result MPs have been inundated with push- button round- robin e- mails, mostly in identical form, calling for ' no cuts in doctors' salaries' and ' no dangerous longer hours' from people who ' do not wish to be treated by tired doctors'. All of which is a little perverse when you learn - and it is a matter of record - that Mr. Hunt intends to reduce, not increase, doctors' working hours while seeking to ensure that they do not lose out financially. So where's the problem?
I do not doubt that there are issues contained within the package that warrant discussion and indeed the one young hospital doctor who actually took the trouble to call to see me to discuss his concerns stated as much, but why do they refuse to sit round a table and talk instead of threatening to strike and put patients wellbeing and possibly their lives at risk? I have had my own quarrels with Jeremy Hunt in the past but on this issue I find it hard to scrape together one iota of sympathy for the position that the medics' leaders have put them in. " Lions led by donkeys" springs to mind. Doctors do, no doubt, work fairly hard but so do lots of other people who are not being offered a sizeable rise in basic pay and who also have to find themselves working at weekends. Firemen and policemen and shop workers for example. Just because Doctors have enjoyed handsome overtime for working some anti- social hours in the past does not mean that they have a God- given right to go on doing so. The Secretary of State, in a move designed to prevent patient- suffering that has been immediately branded by the Union and the press as a ' climb- down’, has agreed to go to ACAS in an effort to broker, in the patients interests, a deal. Some planned procedures and appointments have already been lost as a result of the doctors' actions and it has to be hoped that moderation and common sense will now replace militancy so that a settlement can be reached. The public will, inevitably, believe those nice young doctors rather than an ageing politician but in this instance it seems to me that it is the Secretary of State and not the doctors that is acting on behalf of those who are ill and need and deserve the improved health service that he is striving to achieve and who has the moral high ground.
And then there was the autumn Statement. It did not take a vote in the House of Lords to impress upon Chancellor George the fact that while his thesis that to take tax with one hand and then to hand it back in " credits" with the other is a nonsense, the practical implications of his proposed changes to Working Tax Credits for the "hard working families" that he wants to promote were considerable and adverse. I know from a personal meeting with him weeks ago that he had already decided to fine- tune the figures long before anyone started to ' campaign' on the issue. What most if not all of us were not prepared for was the fact that an improvement in the state of public finances was going to enable George not merely to adjust the figures but to cancel the immediate proposal altogether. The introduction of Universal Credit and other measures will, over time, have the desired effect of reducing the benefit bill without the potentially damaging consequences of a too- far, too- fast cut in Tax Credits would have generated. The Opposition- dominated House of Lords should claim little credit for this change in approach that skilfully maintains the direction of travel.
So was this Autumn Statement the “End of Austerity" headlines in the Press? Emphatically not. Chancellors need luck as well as judgement. We have now enjoyed the longest period of deflation in recorded history, unemployment is at a seven-year low and petrol prices may fall to £1 a litre by Christmas but UK limited has a long way to go before the economy is, possibly by 2020 back in the positive balance that the Treasury is rightly aiming for. There will still, by the end of the period, have been a £12 billion reduction in welfare spending and the accounts should be £10 billion in surplus. By the end of his speech the Chancellor had left the field littered with shot foxes and the shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, found himself floundering for criticism. Cuts in police spending? No." The police protect us and we're going to protect the police" said George. Pensioners? £1125 a year better off - thanks to the Government's ' triple lock'. Everything comes at a price and while first- time home buyers will benefit from up to 20 per cent price discounts others, particularly some overseas investors who have been buying up expensive London second homes for the rental market, will find themselves paying rather more Stamp Duty than hitherto. The devil, as always, lies in details that will emerge for good or ill over time and the laws of unintended consequences may yet creep up to bite the Chancellor in the backside but for the moment the Shadow Chancellor was left quoting from Chairman Mao and chucking a copy of the latter' Little Red Book across the Despatch Boxes in a stunt that backfired to howls of derision in the chamber and, subsequently, in the media. Oh yes, and Holloway's appalling women's' prison is to close - though with the increase in stamp duty it may not prove attractive to a buyer looking for a second home.
In other news Her Maj and Prince Philip returned to Malta for ' CHOGM' (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). Happy days. Princess Elizabeth and her then young naval officer husband lived in the George Cross island's Villa Guardamangia in Valetta while he was commanding HMS Magpie sixty- six years ago. Rugby World Cup victor Sonny Bill Williams handed over his winner's medal to 14 year old fan Charlie Lines. His spontaneous and magnanimous gesture towards an over- enthusiastic pitch- invader prompted a replacement presentation at the World Rugby Awards later in the day. In an unexpected sporting upheaval Mr. Tyson Fury beat Wladimir Klitschko on points to take the World heavyweight championship and Mr. Andrew Murray, a tennis player, led Britain's Davis Cup team to victory for the first time since the days of Fred Perry. Olympic gold, Wimbledon and now the World Cup. "Arise, Sir Andy" in the New Year's honours list?
Those wishing to fly the Atlantic to watch tennis matches may soon be able to board ' son of Concorde'. "Aerion" will fly from London to New York in just over the hour but is planned to have limited capacity. It will carry just 12 passengers.
The High Court has determined that schools must teach atheism as part of a politically correct curriculum. Comforting to know that young minds will be instructed in how not to believe. In anything, including the justice system, presumably.
The religion known as " Shopping" is now celebrated on ' Black Friday', the pre- Christmas high street and on- line shopping binge that, we are told, will survive in the form of ' sales' until the new year. This will replace the Pagan rites known as “The Boxing Day Sales" and “The January Sales" in the secular calendar, making the High Court's decision redundant before the quill pen has left the parchment.
In Glasgow a 74 year old Lollipop lady has been banned from waving at passing cars. The great grandmother has been sent for ' further training' by ' elf 'n safety following a complaint - from one member of the public! A sixty- eight year old grandmother living in North Wales has been fined £75 for accidentally dropping a till receipt in public. The dire offence was recorded by a litter warden wearing a body camera. And Stafford Council is issuing £200 night vision goggles to catch errant dog- foulers in the dark. Makes you proud to be British, does it not?
The organisation known as “Comprehensive Future" is attempting to block an extension to a Grammar School in Sevenoaks. The North London Luvvies, where school selection is determined by postcode and house price, include former pupils of the selective Camden School for Girls, St. Paul's Girls School and Malvern Girls College.
Lily Grace Hooper, who is seven years old and blind, has been banned from taking her cane to school in case she trips up other pupils and teachers. To be strictly accurate she has not been barred from bringing the cane to school - just “barred from using it".
The Hershey company of the United States has lost out to “Real Cadbury's". It seems that the three million ex- pat UK citizens living in America prefer the real thing rather than what Nicky Perry of ' Tea and Sympathy' has described as “an awful approximation" of the traditional Bourneville recipe.
The Toys R Us company has dropped its displays of products designed for boys and girls under the unisex slogan “let toys be toys" and Poundland, the High Street cheapo chain has been selling” Hi - Viz" jackets that have proved to be non-reflective. A hundred thousand of the garments have so far been sold.
Sexism in Santa's Grotto shock! The going rate for a working Father Christmas is £12 per hour. Mrs. Santa. (No, I did not know that he was married either) who decorates ginger bread cakes in Santa's kitchen is worth only an unfestive £6.70. The Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales, explains that Mrs. Claus “only plays a supporting role".
Helmut Schmidt, West Germany’s founding father of the Euro, has checked out at 96.
At 89 Warren Mitchell, the actor who served alongside Richard Burton in the Royal Air Force, has been Parted From Us by Death. Alf starred in the famous television series alongside Una Stubbs and Cherie Blair’s dad, Anthony Booth, for ten years from 1965.
Keith Michell (89), the Australian actor, was versatile but will be always thought of as King Henry VIII, the monarch that he physically resembled and played on screen and stage for the best part of twenty- five years.
Cynthia Payne, the "Madam Cyn" of interesting repute ran a notorious” Gentleman's Club" within which the services of young ladies were exchanged for luncheon vouchers. Departing at a youthful 82 Ms Payne wrote her own epitaph when she said “I filled a void".
Introduced into the Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007 the legendary Jonah Lomu has gone over the try- line at just 40 years of age. He is remembered for his part in the defeat of the UK in the World Cup semi- final in South Africa (1995) and for thirty- seven tries in his sixty- three rugby test matches.
Chris Martin, who died of cancer aged 42, worked from his hospital bed until he could work no more. As Principal Private Secretary and subsequently Director General at Number Ten Downing Street he was a highly respected and dedicated Civil Servant who was awarded a CB by Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. Perhaps those tabloid critics who sniped from the sidelines when, on David Cameron' s recommendation, Her Majesty made Mr. Martin a Commander of the Royal Victorian Order will now appreciate the high esteem in which he was held. The PMs tribute at Question Time immediately following Chris Martin's death was moving and sincere.
It may seem incongruous to follow man with beast but the loss of Diesel, a seven year old Belgian Malinois, on active duty with the police in Paris, is a reminder of the self- sacrificial work carried out by dogs under dangerous circumstances. Diesel was the bearer of the Dickin Award, the PDSA’s animals 'VC', and died during the seven- hour gunfight in St. Denis.
Peter Dimmock (94) will probably be remembered as the TV commentator that brought SportsView and Grandstand to the screens. He was also the man who persuaded the Duke of Norfolk, as Earl Marshall of England, to permit television broadcasting of The Queen's coronation and was the power behind the television coverage of the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill.
Critics of some human sciences would do well to consider the case of 17-month old Layla Richards who is the first British baby to have recovered from leukaemia. Chemotherapy and bone- marrow transplants had already failed when Layla was given, at London's Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, the genetically edited designer immune cells that saved her life. The Consultant has described the treatment as “a landmark in the use of new gene engineering technology" and interestingly the press eschewed, on this occasion, the usual and hackneyed “Frankenstein" connotations so frequently and wrongly associated with genetic engineering.
From Suzy and myself best wishes for a happy Christmas and a healthy and, please God, a more peaceful New Year.