Blogroll: Lustig's Letter
I read blogs, as well as write one. The 'blogroll' on this site reproduces some posts from some of the people I enjoy reading. There are currently 8 posts from the blog 'Lustig's Letter.'
Disclaimer: Reproducing an article here need not necessarily imply agreement or endorsement!
A message from the programme’s editor pops up on their computer screen: ‘A word from the bosses – apparently Downing Street are fretting that the PM didn’t exactly look his best yesterday. They want us to spare his blushes by pulling up some archive stuff – can you dig out something that makes him look less of a prat?’
Do you believe that’s the explanation for why a sequence from 2016 rather than the previous day somehow found its way into that Monday morning TV report? Really? Do you seriously believe that BBC journalists take orders direct from Downing Street?
And that if anything remotely like that had happened, someone wouldn’t have blurted it out? I mean, please. Seriously?
Apparently, however, judging from the storm on social media that followed, a lot of people do believe exactly that. Including, to my amazement, some former BBC journalists who appear to have an extremely low opinion of their former colleagues.
One of them wrote on Twitter on Monday morning: ‘As a former [producer] on that programme, I can assure you that people who’ve been up all night don’t go to the trouble of finding three-year-old pictures and inserting them in an edit unless they’ve been told to. There is something very fishy about this …’
And after the BBC blamed the mistake on a ‘production error’, another wrote: ‘I used to work for BBC News. The previous day’s footage is right there in front of you. Footage from three years ago needs to be specially ordered from the Library. What sort of ‘error’ is that?’
A couple of hours later, that particular former producer admitted that they had left the BBC many years ago, ‘when we still used tape’. In other words, they had not the foggiest idea how the BBC’s digital editing systems are set up or how archive material is accessed in the digital age. But the damage was done: their first tweet was approved of by more than thirteen thousand people and retweeted by seven and a half thousand; the second by only a handful of people.
Similarly, a tweet from the former producer who had complained that there was something ‘very fishy’ going on was retweeted by eight thousand people and approved of by twenty thousand. A later tweet, from the same producer, in which they accepted the BBC’s explanation of how the mistake arose (‘I don’t doubt now that’s what happened’) was retweeted by just twelve people and approved of by a paltry twenty-five.
So here – just in case you have better things to do with your time than pore obsessively over the minutiae of the BBC’s production processes – is the official explanation for what happened. On Sunday morning, before the Remembrance Day events had taken place, BBC Breakfast ran some archive footage from the ceremony three years ago. When, the following day, a report on the event was being prepared, that archive clip – which, remember, had been broadcast on Sunday and therefore would have been marked accordingly in the digital archive, was included in the report by mistake. Did no one notice that Boris Johnson, who was foreign secretary in 2016, was carrying a green wreath instead of a red one? No, they didn’t. (Note to BBC news managers: that’s what happens when you slash staffing levels.)
Declaration of interest: I worked for the BBC for more than twenty years, and as a veteran of literally thousands of live news programmes – admittedly radio rather than TV – I can let you in on a secret: behind the scenes, they tend to be pretty chaotic. Often, taped items are transmitted before anyone has had a chance to check them; and often, no one on the production team is watching or listening to them as they are broadcast, for the simple reason that they are trying desperately to sort out the rest of the programme.
Former BBC journalists know all this well enough, so why are some of them so ready to join the chorus of ill-informed and sometimes ill-intentioned criticism, often from politically motivated sources, which descends on the BBC every time it makes a mistake? Some of them, I suspect, have convinced themselves that the place fell apart as soon as they left; others simply enjoy discomfiting their former employer. And some, I’m sure, are seriously concerned about what they perceive to be its shortcomings.
But here’s why I think all this is much more important than a row over a few seconds of breakfast television. There is a growing public perception that no news can be trusted these days, that politicians and journalists alike are all liars. This is a deeply dangerous development, and it is being encouraged by political forces whose goal is to weaken the standing of a free and independent press in a free and democratic society.
One commenter on (of all places) The Times website yesterday morning wrote: ‘It is naïve to consider news as true. Much or most is fake news.’ Which is exactly what Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and autocrats everywhere want you to believe. After all, if most news is fake, why should you believe anything journalists report when they uncover a politician’s malpractice or criminal activity? It is a blueprint for impunity.
As it happens, I gave a talk earlier this week to a group of secondary school students on the subject ‘True or false: how to survive in a world of fake news.’ I told them that they should be sceptical of everything they see and read (‘sceptical = not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations’) but not cynical (‘believing that people are motivated purely be self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’).
I do not, of course, believe that the BBC is above criticism. I do believe, however, that those who for whatever reason encourage the view that it is part of a conspiracy to prop up a Conservative government and burnish the image of the current prime minister should take a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. (Does no one remember Eddie Mair’s direct confrontation with Johnson back in 2013? ‘You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?’)
Ponder the admirably honest words of the BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker: ‘We made a mistake. It’s an embarrassing error which our boss has apologised for. It’s annoying for everyone … and we have rightly been criticised for it. All I can give you is a guarantee that it was a genuine mistake.’
And the words of a friend and former BBC colleague, one of the cleverest people I know, whose blushes I shall spare by not naming him: ‘Scientists and philosophers who’ve devoted their lives to reason and empiricism are repeating the conspiracy that the BBC deliberately used incorrect footage to make Johnson look good. Get a grip, people.’
Whoever wins next month’s election – or even if, as seems more than likely, no one wins it – the future shape of UK politics will have been profoundly changed.
RIP the Conservative and Labour parties as we have known them for the past hundred years. And RIP the notion that any party that hopes to win power needs to embrace a broad swathe of views and opinions.
Remember the ‘broad church’ theory? Just a few short weeks ago, the Labour MP Hilary Benn wrote: ‘To paraphrase Harold Wilson, the Labour party is a broad church or it is nothing.’ (What Wilson actually said, in a speech to the Labour party conference in 1962, was: ‘This party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.’ Which isn’t quite the same thing.)
Broad church: ‘a group or movement which embraces a wide and varied number of views, approaches and opinions.’ (Collins English Dictionary). In other words, a movement that can comfortably accommodate both Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson, or Boris Johnson and Ken Clarke.
No longer. Ken Clarke was one of 21 MPs who were booted out of the Tory party for daring to disagree with Boris Johnson. Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, has thrown in the towel after trying – and failing – to resist the Corbynite ascendancy. (He had more success in his efforts to dislodge Tony Blair from 10 Downing Street on behalf of his long-time ally Gordon Brown.)
Ian Austin, another former Brownite, who during a debate in 2016 about the Chilcot report into the Iraq war told Jeremy Corbyn to ‘sit down and shut up’, is now advising voters to support the Conservative party. (The former Labour MP, John Woodcock, who had the party whip withdrawn last year after sexual harassment allegations were made against him, has done likewise.) Philip Hammond, former Tory chancellor, foreign secretary and defence secretary, is quitting politics and says his former party has been turned into an ‘extreme right-wing faction.’
True, Boris Johnson still likes to claim that he is a ‘One Nation’ Tory – I’m not sure some of his senior Cabinet colleagues (Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, for example) feel the same way. Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn insists he favours ‘gentler politics’ – tell that to Luciana Berger, Margaret Hodge or Louise Ellman. Shock news: just because a political leader says something doesn’t mean it is true.
For much of the period since the end of the Second World War, the UK’s two dominant political parties positioned themselves close to what they perceived to be the centre ground of public opinion. (Margaret Thatcher was a notable exception.) ‘Butskellism’, an approach embraced by both the Conservatives’ Rab Butler and Labour’s Hugh Gaitskell, was the order of the day: the Tories accepted the establishment of the welfare state, and Labour signed up to NATO and a British nuclear weapons programme.
In the years that followed, Tony Blair admired Margaret Thatcher; David Cameron admired Tony Blair. At election times, voters could be heard complaining that they couldn’t tell the difference between the parties. I doubt there are many voters now who would say they can’t tell the difference between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.
There is a perfectly good argument to be made that this cosy centre-ground consensus did not serve the country as well as its proponents like to think. In 1997, Gordon Brown promised that Labour would match the Tories’ spending plans; in 2007, the Tories pledged to match Labour’s spending plans; and the global banking melt-down of 2008 was due at least in part to Labour and the Conservatives agreeing that the financial markets would operate best with only the lightest of regulation. Well, we know how that one ended …
The UK is not alone in witnessing the hollowing out of the political centre. In Donald Trump’s America, the Republicans have moved sharply to the right since the so-called Gingrich revolution of 1994 and the rise of the Tea Party faction since the late 2000s, while the Democrats are swinging left under the influence of would-be presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In Italy, Matteo Salvini’s extreme populist and anti-immigration League party is outflanking more moderate parties, while in Germany, the centre-right Christian Democrats of Angela Merkel are under increasing pressure from the far-right anti-establishment AfD party.
Yes, there are a few exceptions: Emmanuel Macron in France, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and Justin Trudeau in Canada all position themselves more or less in the centrist tradition – and even in the UK, more voters still say they think of themselves as in the centre of the political spectrum than on either the right or the left.
But if democratic politics tend to resemble a pendulum, swinging first this way, then that way, what we are increasingly observing now is a pendulum swinging ever further in each direction. Why? Because no party in power has yet managed to convince voters that it has got a grip on the problems that matter most to them. ‘This lot are no good; so let’s try an even tougher lot.’
And then there’s Brexit. Which has given birth to a rare joint effort by three of the main pro-Remain parties – Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru – to maximise their chances of electoral success. So in nine English constituencies, the Lib Dems are standing down in favour of the Greens; the Greens are doing the same for the Lib Dems in 40 English constituencies; and in Wales, Plaid are being a clear run in seven.
It might help a handful of Lib Dems in the most marginal seats where they came second last time round – and that, in turn, might increase the chances of sending Boris Johnson packing. But as every commentator in the land keeps telling you, no one really has a clue what’s going to happen. One thing, though, is certain: if you want to make your voice heard, you need to be on the electoral register. You have until 26 November: here’s the link if you haven’t registered yet.
Well, well. I woke up this morning, looked out of the window, and – surprise! – we’re still in the EU. Instead of a do-or-die Brexit, we’re going to have another general election, our third in just over four years, and this time it’ll be in December – the darkest, coldest, wettest month of the year.
Thank you, Santa Boris, it’s what I had always hoped for as an early Christmas present. What more could we ask than having to troop along to the polling station in pouring rain on a freezing winter evening? Tip: apply for a postal vote. Here’s the link.
In 2015, the Tories under David Cameron won with a 12-seat overall majority in the House of Commons. An overall majority? How very quaint.
In 2017, the Tories under Theresa May failed to win an overall majority. And I don’t need to remind you what happened next. Agony piled upon agony.
So here we go again. And this time, the choice is clearer than ever: if the Tories win with an overall majority, the UK will leave the European Union. If they don’t, it won’t. Probably.
Labour are offering a new, better withdrawal deal and then a referendum. If you like their deal, you’ll vote Yes and the UK will leave the EU. If you don’t, you’ll vote No and we’ll stay put. Jeremy Corbyn won’t express a preference.
I know better than to make any predictions, but it is quite possible that no party will win with an overall majority. The agony of a stalemated parliament might well continue. Perhaps MPs will have to start learning the art of compromise, of consensus-building, of reaching out to other parties. All the stuff that Theresa May and Boris Johnson thought was beneath them. For them, tribalism is all – you follow the leader, or you are cast out into the cold.
But here’s what is seriously weird: MPs voted to go for an early election after they had given approval in principle to Mr Johnson’s renegotiated withdrawal agreement. Why? Because the PM was determined not to allow them more than a few days to go through it, line by line. He preferred the risk of an election to the risk of proper scrutiny of the deal.
Hmm. The Financial Times hit the nail on the head in its leader column: ‘Britain’s voters should be under no illusion that the timing of the election has been set for the Conservative party’s advantage and not, as Mr Johnson claims, because parliament is blocking Brexit.’
So add it to your list of favourite Johnson lies and repeat ten times each evening before bed: parliament did not block Brexit. And then keep count of how many times you hear him trot out the same lie each day between now and election day.
And remember as you cast your vote: this was the Johnson/Cummings plan all along. Not for them the messy, gruelling business of trying to govern without a majority – go for broke, win an election and, to coin a phrase, get Brexit done.
We’ll see. The best laid plans, and all that. Frankly, I dread the next six weeks: I fear the campaign will be ugly, mendacious and far worse than anything we have seen so far. The Brexiteers’ dictionary of insults – traitors, saboteurs, betrayal – too often matched by Corbynite ultras in the Labour party, has already fed through into vicious verbal abuse of anyone not signed up to worship at the feet of the cult leader.
Add to the mix rampant misogyny and it is hardly surprising that so many MPs – in particular, so many female MPs – have decided to call it a day. In the words of my former BBC colleague Jenni Russell: ‘This narrow sectionalism, this demonisation of anyone who has a different view of a good Brexit or a good society, is disastrous not just for MPs affected but for the country. We are losing a generation of dedicated, thoughtful public servants.’
So, if you’re not a die-hard Johnsonian Brexiteer, how are you going to vote? Personally, I quite like the (admittedly self-serving) advice from the Green party MEP Alexandra Phillips. ‘Vote Green in all seats that are not marginal (more than 3k majority), and vote for the strongest non-Tory (Lab/Lib) option in marginals.’
And just in case you have forgotten, here are a few of the choicest lies from the Johnson Book of Falsehoods (thanks to The Times for having collected them):
‘We are going … to come out of the EU on October 31, no ifs or buts.’ (25 July)
‘There are no circumstances in which I shall ask Brussels to delay.’ (2 September)
‘We will be leaving on 31 October, deal or no deal.’ (3 October)
‘I will not negotiate a delay with the EU and neither does the law compel me to do so.’ (19 October)
And there will be plenty more before polling day.
I bring you just a little bit of good news – and I think it’s a lot more important than the latest Brexit breakthrough. (Which, of course, may turn out not to be a breakthrough at all, but merely another step along the rocky path to, well, who knows where it leads?)
The good news, such as it is, is this: according to the environmental news website Carbon Brief, the UK generated more energy from non-carbon sources – windfarms, solar panels, biomass and hydro-electric plants – in the third quarter of 2019 than the entire combined output from coal, oil and gas power stations.
It was, Carbon Brief reports, the first-ever three-month period during which this was achieved since the UK’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882, and it marks another symbolic milestone in the transformation of the country’s electricity system over the past ten years.
This is the break-down: 40% of electricity generation came from renewables (20% from wind, 12% from biomass, and 6% from solar). Thirty-nine per cent came from coal, oil and gas, nearly all of it from gas. The remaining 19% came from nuclear.
And that, I’m afraid, is the end of the good news. Because we’re still off track to meet the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets, despite the government’s target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. (The Extinction Rebellion protesters want to reach net-zero by 2025, which unfortunately looks even less likely. As it happens, I have a lot of respect for the protesters, although I’m not convinced that targeting public transport during the morning rush hour is the best way to win friends and influence people.)
One of the biggest problems we face is that energy efficiency improvements are being introduced far more slowly than is necessary if the net-zero carbon target is to be met. Emissions from cars and other road vehicles? Nowhere near good enough. Loft insulation improvements? Likewise.
And as winter edges ever closer and we begin to think about turning on the central heating again, let us remind ourselves that 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our home heating systems. According to a report launched this week by the climate change minister Ian Duncan, continuing to heat our homes with fossil fuels threatens fatally to undermine the government’s carbon reduction targets. If we are really serious about meeting those targets, something like 20,000 homes per week will have to be converted to low-carbon heating before 2050. That is, to put it mildly, one hell of an undertaking.
And – how can I put this? – I’m afraid there’s more. A team of Russian scientists have reported finding the most powerful ever methane jets shooting up from beneath the bed of the East Siberian Sea. (Methane is an even more damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.)
The emissions are being fuelled by the melting of permafrost due to higher global temperatures, and Professor Igor Semiletov of Tomsk Polytechnic University has reported that whereas methane levels found on previous research trips to the area were around 3, 4 or 5 parts per million, on his most recent trip, he measured levels of up to 16 parts per million.
The Guardian published what it called an ‘environmental pledge’ this week, saying that the ‘escalating climate crisis is the defining issue of our lifetimes and that the planet is in the grip of an emergency.’ I agree.
Yes, of course Brexit is important. But the climate emergency is far more important.
If there is anyone more dangerous than Donald Trump when he thinks he is invincible, it is Donald Trump when he fears he is vulnerable.
It is, therefore, seriously troubling to watch him unravel as the impeachment vultures start circling above his head, and his previously sycophantic acolytes begin to distance themselves from him. (According to one report yesterday, ‘White House officials close to President Donald Trump are pulling off a disappearing act, remaining largely absent from public view, in the middle of the storm over impeachment.’)
And his mood will not have improved with last night’s news that two business associates of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the man at the centre of the Ukraine shake-down allegations, have been arrested at Dulles airport with one-way tickets to Frankfurt and charged with plotting to channel foreign cash into a pro-Trump political action committee. Trump insists he doesn’t know them, although he accepts he might have been photographed with them. (He was: here’s the photo.)
Immediately after the presidential election in November 2016, I wrote a piece headlined ‘Caution: dangerous world ahead.’ ‘The election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place,’ I wrote. ‘What scares me most about [him] is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead.’
It was one of those occasions when I hoped I would be proved wrong. Perhaps he would put together a team of senior advisers who knew what they were doing and could prevent him making too many mistakes.
So here we are, with a president who sees nothing wrong with asking the president of Ukraine to dig up some dirt on a political rival, then doubles down by asking China to do the same, and then after a weekend chat on the phone with President Erdoğan of Turkey, announces a major change of US policy in Syria which is likely to leave his erstwhile Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turkish military.
But hey, who cares? In the words of Trump himself (and remember, he is also commander-in-chief of the US military): ‘The Kurds didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us in Normandy.’(If you don’t believe that he really said it, here’s the clip. He was wrong, anyway: in fact, thousands of Kurds fought with the British in Iraq during WWII.)
And in response to suggestions that thousands of imprisoned Islamic State fighters might now be sprung from Kurdish custody, hey, what’s the problem? ‘They’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go.’
No one expects consistency from Donald Trump, but for the record, here is what he said a year ago about the Kurdish fighters whom he has now abandoned: ‘We’re trying to help them a lot … We have to help them. I want to help them. They fought with us. They died with us. They died. We lost tens of thousands of Kurds, died fighting ISIS. They’re great people. And we have not forgotten. We don’t forget.’
How hollow those words sound now.
Turkey says it wants to create a 20-mile deep ‘safe zone’ along its border with Syria, and appears to be hoping that it can establish a Kurd-free area into which it can then resettle at least some of the three million Syrian refugees who have sought shelter on its territory over the past eight years. The words ‘ethnic cleansing’ spring to mind.
Trump likes to boast that under his leadership, the US destroyed the IS threat. The truth is that it was largely Kurdish fighters who took on IS, with US assistance. So now, the way Trump sees it, who needs the Kurds any more? Erdoğan has always hated the US-Kurdish alliance – to Turkey, the Kurds pose a major security threat – so he asked Trump to move US forces out of the way, and bingo! Turkey moved in.
It has been much too easy over the past three years to dismiss Trump as a ludicrous clown, to be mocked mercilessly but not to be taken too seriously. It was always a mistake, but now the evidence is clearer than ever: Turkish warplanes are in action over Syria, their troops are on the ground, and civilians are fleeing from their homes in fear.
As the historian Simon Schama observed pithily: ‘Just because he’s a lunatic doesn’t mean he’s also not very very stupid.
A former senior official in the US State Department during the Obama era, Amanda Sloat, wrote in the Washington Post: ‘Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw US advisers from the Syrian border, and at least tacitly approve a Turkish military operation, was sloppy and cruel … Renewed fighting will harm civilians in a now-peaceful part of a war-torn country, enable the Islamic State to regroup, and empower Russia and Iran, who are backing the Assad regime and hungry for more influence.’
This all raises a deeply worrying question. What might Trump do next as the impeachment process tightens its grip? To put it melodramatically, how many more people will die as a result of his woeful ignorance and emotional incontinence?
Anyone who follows his rantings on Twitter (I don’t recommend it) will know how enraged he is at opinion polls showing that public support for his impeachment is steadily growing. After Fox News – yes, Fox News – reported that more than half of American voters now want him to be impeached and removed from office, he responded: ‘From the day I announced I was running for President, I have NEVER had a good Fox News poll. Whoever their Pollster is, they suck … Fox News doesn’t deliver for US any more. It is so different than it used to be. Oh well, I’m President.’
Twenty years ago, in the film Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, a fictional US President invented a fictional war to divert attention from his domestic political difficulties. That was satire, but this is reality. To the great misfortune of the hundreds of thousands of people living along the Syrian-Turkish border, there is nothing fictional about this president – or this war.
More than at any time since the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump three years ago, I fear for our future.
We are descending into a very dark place.
Where governments cast aside the rule of law as if it is no more than an irritating inconvenience.
Where political leaders stoke up hatred for short-term political gain.
Where lies have become common currency.
And where a former British Cabinet minister, John Whittingdale, can claim, in all seriousness, that ‘There is a judgement which is superior to that of any court … the judgement of the British people.’ In other words, who needs the rule of law when a lynch mob is on hand?
I am not alone in my fears: the front-page headline in today’s Times reads: ‘Deliver Brexit or face riots’, based on what an anonymous Cabinet minister is reported to have told Boris Johnson. And Gaby Hinsliff, in today’s Guardian, writes that Johnson ‘has brought this country to the point where an election is genuinely to be feared, no matter who wins, because of the violence that may follow.’
In Boris Johnson, we have a prime minister who knows no shame. A prime minister who has sold his soul to a reckless schemer, Dominic Cummings, who recognises no rules (he had already been found to be in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear before a select committee, which tells us all we need to know about how little importance Mr Johnson attaches to such matters) and who revels in sowing discord.
In Donald Trump, we have a US president who is so cavalier in his disregard for the law that when he asks a foreign leader, as a favour, to open a criminal investigation into his principal political adversary (Joe Biden, who served as US vice-president for eight years under Barack Obama), he so alarms a member of his own intelligence services that they invoke whistle-blower protection to report their suspicion that Trump is guilty of a criminal act and that the White House has tried to cover it up.
For a brief moment last Tuesday, I felt a flutter of optimism after the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous 11-0 ruling that Boris Johnson’s decision to seek a five-week prorogation of parliament was ‘unlawful, null and of no effect’. At last, I thought: an over-mighty executive brought to heel by a robust, independent judiciary. That’s how democracy is meant to work.
As the Financial Times said in a stonking editorial on Wednesday: ‘When strongman leaders, even in advanced democracies, are attempting to bypass legislatures or due process, the ruling sends a powerful message. In the age of fake news and alternative realities, it is refreshing that judges saw through Downing Street’s skulduggery.’
The president of the Supreme Court, the inspirational Baroness Hale, felt the need to remind Boris Johnson of something that no one, let alone a UK prime minister, should ever have needed to be reminded of: ‘We live in a representative democracy. The House of Commons exists because the people have elected its members. The government is not directly elected by the people … The government exists because it has the confidence of the House of Commons. It has no democratic legitimacy other than that.’ (My italics.)
Contrast that with the disgraceful suggestion from Johnson himself that parliament should ‘stand aside’ to allow the government to ‘get Brexit done’. Study those words carefully: parliament should stand aside. Not the opposition, not anti-Brexiteers, but parliament itself. They were the words of a playground bully: ‘Get out of my way or I’ll smash your face in.’
Rafael Behr in The Guardianalso felt a need to teach the prime minister the basics of how representative democracy works: ‘Johnson holds his office by crown appointment on the basis that he governs with the consent of parliament, representing the people. There is no higher channel that somehow transmutes the popular will into the body of a supreme leader. That mystical power is claimed only by charlatans and autocrats.’
As we now know, Mr Johnson accepts none of that. He insists that, even though there is now a law on the statute book obliging him to seek an Article 50 extension before the end of October if he has not reached a withdrawal agreement with the EU, he has no intention of doing any such thing.
According to the former prime minister Sir John Major, he could be planning to bypass the law by passing a so-called Order in Council to suspend the Act – something he could do without involving either parliament or the Queen. ‘I should warn the prime minister,’ said Sir John, ‘that, if this route is taken, it will be in flagrant defiance of parliament and utterly disrespectful to the Supreme Court. It would be a piece of political chicanery that no one should ever forgive or forget.’
And all this while Mr Johnson recklessly ramps up the rhetoric, dismisses as ‘humbug’ the fears of MPs for their personal safety, and insists on using words like ‘surrender’ and ‘capitulation’, words which presumably he thinks make him sound like Winston Churchill in 1940, to paint his opponents as traitors. He brushes aside appeals from all sides to moderate his language, still refusing to accept that what might, just, have been acceptable from the newspaper columnist that he once was is wholly unacceptable – no, worse than that, is despicable – from a national leader.
(Incidentally, his insistence on referring to the ‘Surrender Act’ is based on a blatant lie, Trumpian in its brazenness. Here is the truth, if you’re interested. It might be worth passing on to anyone you hear using the ‘surrender’ phrase.)
So Boris Johnson stands revealed as an unprincipled, amoral, political chameleon, prepared to wrap himself in whatever tawdry covering is required to gain him the prizes he most covets: power and glory. As mayor of London, he pretended to be a social liberal, a man of the metropolis. Now he is a zealot, stirring up hatreds and using the incendiary language of violence.
Which brings us, alas, to the equally appalling vista on the other side of the Atlantic, where Donald Trump now faces formal impeachment proceedings. In response, as you’d expect, he’s gone off the rails again: he has demanded to know where the intelligence service whistle-blower got their information from (the full complaint is here, and it’s well worth reading), and suggested that whoever was responsible was ‘close to a spy – and you know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart?’ (Clue: spies used to be shot.)
I wish I could feel more positive about both the impending US impeachment proceedings and the UK Supreme Court ruling. Both suggest that robust democratic institutions can still function, even when autocrats and bullies seek to run roughshod over them. But what deeply concerns me is the readiness of both Trump and Johnson – and their acolytes – to coarsen political debate and disagreement to such a degree that it soon could spill over into more violence.
Let us not forget: the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered in 2016; Heather Heyer was killed during a ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a year later. Both were the victims of extreme nationalists who took their cue directly from the sort of language now used routinely by leaders on both sides of the ocean. Twenty-two people died in El Paso, Texas, just last month, allegedly at the hands of a gunman who had earlier published online a manifesto redolent with white nationalist and anti-immigrant bigotry.
In the US, a presidential election is due next year. In the UK, an election could be upon us before the end of this year, and a second Brexit referendum could follow not long after that. With emotions running as high as they are, and with reckless political leaders in both countries prepared to say anything at all that they calculate will bring them political advantage, the risks of more violence have never been higher.
And the big question for progressives and liberals who, like me, fear for the future, is how best to confront the danger. So far, no one seems to have come up with a good answer.