Blogroll: Lustig's Letter
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Oh, how I wish more people remembered the recent past.
Which Labour party leader was alleged by the CIA and some senior MI5 officials to be a Soviet agent?
Which deranged publisher of a mass market red-top newspaper tried to involve the royal family in a plot to overthrow that same Labour prime minister?
Which Labour leader sued the Sunday Times for libel -- and won -- after it suggested that he was regarded by the KGB as an 'agent of influence'?
Which Labour leader was alleged in the Mail on Sunday to have 'colluded with Soviet Communists' to defeat the Conservatives?
And which Labour leader was attacked by a newspaper columnist for having a kitchen that was as 'bland, functional, humourless, cold and about as much fun to live in as a Communist era housing block in Minsk'?
In each case, you'll be delighted to know, the answer is not Jeremy Corbyn. (The correct answers are Harold Wilson, Cecil King of the Daily Mirror, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband.)
The point being, of course, that attacks on Labour party leaders for being Communist stooges are about as original in the British press as complaints about the weather. The recent spate of 'Corbyn and the Czech spy' stories prove nothing more than a shameful lack of originalityamong current editors.
The Daily Mail has a particularly sewer-like record on such matters. As long ago as 1924, it published the so-called Zinoviev letter, which purported to be from the Soviet Communist party and which was intended to be highly damaging to the Labour party. It was, in fact, a forgery.
In 1977, the Mail published a letter that appeared to give permission to the state-owned motor manufacturer British Leyland to pay bribes to win overseas contracts. It, too, was designed to damage Labour -- and it, too, was a forgery.
There is nothing new about fake news.
So what heinous crime is Mr Corbyn said to be guilty of? He met -- once, or perhaps twice -- a Czech diplomat who turned out to be a spy. What did he tell him? According to The Sun: 'He reportedly handed over a copy of a newspaper article ...' Which somehow doesn't quite rank up there with the blueprint for a nuclear warhead.
Yes, some MPs are spies. Some have even been Czech spies. Who now remembers Raymond Mawby, MP for Totnes in the 1950s and 60s who did indeed sell information to the Czech security service for more than a decade? Oh, sorry, perhaps I should have mentioned: Mawby was a Conservative.
And of course there was also John Stonehouse, a Labour MP who served in Harold Wilson's government, and who is best remembered for his bizarre attempt to fake his own death in 1974 by disappearing after leaving a pile of his clothes on a beach in Miami. He was arrested a month later in Australia, deported back to the UK, where he was convicted of fraud, theft and forgery, and sentenced to seven years in jail. He, too, it turned out, had been spying for the Czechs.
But Jeremy Corbyn? For goodness sake, what information could he possibly have had access to that would have been of the remotest interest to the spymasters in Prague?
Ah ha, says his supposed Czech handler Jan Sarkocy, aka Jan Dymic. As a result of what Corbyn allegedly told him, 'I knew what Thatcher would have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and what she would wear next day.'
Corbyn also, according to Czech secret service files quoted by the Daily Mail, had ‘an active supply of information on British intelligence services.’
Right. Deep breath. The Corbyn-Czech spy scandal boils down to no more than a claim that a young left-wing backbench MP knew the secrets both of Margaret Thatcher's kitchen and of her wardrobe, and, moreover, had useful information about British intelligence.
It is nonsense on stilts. To publish any of this stuff is an insult to our intelligence. Yes, Corbyn was, and is, a socalist, and he has never made any secret of his sympathy for socialist causes. But to claim, as to his shame, the defence secretary Gavin Williamson did, that Corbyn 'betrayed Britain' is nothing less than a gross calumny.
However, Corbyn's response to all this has been, I think, ill-advised. His video warning to the press barons -- 'We’ve got news for them: change is coming' -- sounded uncomfortably like a threat, and politicians threatening the media is rarely a good look, even when it is accompanied, as it was in Mr Corbyn's video, by the obligatory 'A free press is essential for democracy.'
By all means, hit back at the lies and the smears. But much better not even to suggest that you plan to take your revenge against the newspapers because you don't like what they write. That's Trump territory, and it is not where Labour should be.
I much prefer the Michelle Obama strategy: 'When they go low, we go high.'
Stop what you're doing, and read these words.
'It’s our moral duty to speak up ... We are not able to reach the conscience or the ears of politicians, of decision makers, of people in power ... We are running out of words.'
They are the words of Panos Moumtzis, the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria. And he sounds like a man close to despair.
Mr Moumtzis has been working for the UN for nearly thirty years, mainly with refugees and dealing with humanitarian emergencies in places like Somalia, Rwanda, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon. I imagine he is not easily shocked.
Yet he clearly is shocked -- not only by the callous, indiscriminate air attacks by Russian and Syrian government warplanes on the country's few remaining rebel-held areas, but also by the Assad regime's unconscionable refusal to allow in any aid.
For me, this is where the media spotlight should be focused. I welcome, of course, the reported capture of the two British-born IS fighters who are said to have been responsible for some of the most gruesome atrocities against Western journalists and others in Syria in 2014. (I hope, incidentally, that they are put on trial rather than incarcerated indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay as two of President Trump's so-called 'bad dudes'.)
But here's another atrocity. In the past two months, according to the UN, not a single aid convoy has been allowed into any of the areas under siege by Syrian government forces, nor has permission been granted for a single medical evacuation. In the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, an estimated 400,000 people have received no deliveries of food, water or medicine since last November.
The enclave has suffered four straight days of unceasing bombardment this week; according to one monitoring group, fifty-nine civilians, including fifteen children, were killed on Thursday alone.
According to the New York Times, Mr Moumtzis spoke to reporters in Beirut earlier this week 'with a degree of emotion not usually conveyed in the United Nations’ carefully worded statements.'
I'm not surprised. After nearly seven years of war, nearly half a million deaths, and more than ten million people having fled from their homes (five million of them have left the country), we have lost interest.
Syria? Oh, yes, terrible tragedy. Pity there's nothing we can do. (Except go after IS remnants whom we have identified as a threat to Western security.)
In fact, not everyone has lost interest. Russia hasn't -- quite the opposite, as it seeks to finish off, on behalf of its client regime in Damascus, what is left of the opposition.
And nor has Turkey, which will do whatever it takes to crush a Kurdish revival in parts of northern Syria which border Turkey and which President Erdoğan regards as an existential threat to his country's survival.
Perhaps you thought the war was all but over. Perhaps you also thought that President Assad had all but won. Even if the second of those assumptions may be true, the first is not. Just as they did in Aleppo, Russia and the Syrian air force are pulverising Assad's opponents into submission. Their action is brutal, it is calculated, it is clearly against international law -- and it works.
In September 2016, when rebel-held eastern Aleppo was under attack, another senior UN official, Stephen O'Brien (a former Conservative MP as it happens), addressed the Security Council in New York and pleaded with them to take action to stop the violence.
‘It is within your power to do it,' he told them. 'If you don’t take action, there will be no Syrian peoples or Syria to save – that will be this Council’s legacy, our generation’s shame.’
They ignored him -- of course -- and countless more Syrians were killed and injured.
In Washington, US diplomacy is effectively moribund. All Donald Trump cares about is that IS are on the back foot, and he can claim the credit. What Russia is doing in Syria appears to have been of far less concern to him, although that may be about to change following reports on Thursday that US forces killed more than 100 fighters loyal to President Assad in the east of the country, possibly including some Russians. The Syrian government has called it a massacre.
The EU is overwhelmingly preoccupied with its own internal divisions: not only Brexit but also growing signs of rising anti-Brussels sentiment in Warsaw and Budapest. Germany has been without a government since elections last September, and it is by no means clear that the shaky coalition deal reached this week will result in an administration strong enough to take the initiative on the international stage.
When Aleppo was under attack in 2016, leaflets were dropped advising residents to flee for their lives. 'You know that everyone has given up on you,' the leaflets said. 'They left you alone to face your doom and nobody will give you any help.’
To our eternal shame, it was true. And it is still true now.
Pitter patter, pitter patter. They don't want to alarm the ultras, but they are slowly making headway. Their goal: to reach the Downing Street citadel and recruit the prime minister to their cause. The prize: continuing membership of the EU customs union and -- even -- the single market.
Every so often, like a meerkat, one of them raises their head. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, dared to suggest in Davos that the UK's exit from the EU could involve only 'very modest' changes. Then, entirely coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally), a cross-Whitehall economic assessment study was leaked, suggesting that however modest the changes might be, they will still damage the UK's economic prospects.
A comprehensive free trade agreement? UK growth would be 5% lower over the next 15 years compared to current forecasts. Even under the softest of options -- continued single-market access through membership of the European Economic Area -- long-term growth would still be 2% lower.
Oh look, here's another meerkat, Labour's former business secretary Chuka Umunna, who has emerged to lead a pro-European, grassroots umbrella group that intends to campaign for the public to have a say in any final deal. You know what meerkats are like: first, one raises its head, and then, before you know it, they are popping up everywhere.
According to the Financial Times, civil servants are 'actively' considering the option of a customs union deal with the EU to cover goods but not services. More rustling in the undergrowth.
If I am reading the runes correctly, the soft Brexiteers are beginning to think they have the wind in their sails. In the Labour party, there are signs that Jeremy Corbyn may soon be nudged off his Brexit fence and actually commit himself to a long-term vision. The ultras, aka 'the swivel-eyed few' (© climate change minister Claire Perry), have been caught napping, lulled into complacency by the Downing Street hypnotist's irresistible mantra: 'Brexit means Brexit.'
Only the frantic alarm calls ('Treachery, treachery!') from Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg can raise them from their slumber. But they have a problem: the Downing Street hypnotist has hypnotised herself. She is comatose, inert, reduced to mumbling in her sleep: 'I am not a quitter. I am not a quitter.'
Her foot soldiers are in despair. Whether they prefer their Brexit hard or soft, whether they are pro-Remain or pro-Leave, their anguish was pithily and effectively distilled on the front page of this week's Spectator into a simple, primal scream aimed at Mrs May: 'Lead or Go.'
But here's the thing: she is incapable of carrying out the first of those commandments, and refuses to carry out the second. Result: stalemate.
Meanwhile, I hear another sound. Tick. Tock. It is the Brexit clock, ticking inexorably towards March next year, the Moment of Truth, when the UK, unless someone sticks a spanner in the works, will formally leave the EU.
It is now nearly fifty years since my undergraduate days as a Politics student, so perhaps I have forgotten everything I was taught. But I am at a total loss to understand how a prime minister, a chancellor, a home secretary, and a majority of the House of Commons can sleepwalk the nation towards an outcome that they all believe will be deeply harmful for its future.
I understand how a referendum can delegitimise an elected parliament. I also understand that some MPs in constituencies with a pro-Brexit majority feel that it is their duty to represent the majority view. Whether they would feel the same way about, for example, the restoration of capital punishment is a question best left for another day.
The ultras' caucus is the European Research Group, currently led by Jacob Rees-Mogg and consisting of some eighty Tory MPs. If just forty-eight of them signed a letter calling for a leadership election, they could topple Mrs May and seek to instal one of their own in Downing Street. So why haven't they?
First, because they can't be confident that their favoured candidate would win. Second, because a leadership election could well split the party from top to bottom. But third, because -- as Rafael Behr points out in Prospect magazine -- they don't want to be held responsible for what happens after Brexit.
What they do want, says Behr, is 'the freedom to complain that it has been bodged; that the dream has been betrayed by Remoaners and their civil service accomplices.' In other words, they may huff and puff mightily to persuade us that they are blowing the Euro-house down, but by their cowardice do we know them. They do not even have the courage of their own convictions.
As a definition of political cynicism, it would be hard to beat. But it does offer Mrs May a way out. True, it would be wholly out of character, but here's what she could do.
Eat her words on 'no membership of the customs union, no membership of the single market'. 'I have been persuaded that staying close to, but not a member of, the EU is best for Britain.'
Put the deal to the House of Commons, where she would win with the support of the Labour party but without the support of Gove, Johnson, Davis, and -- of course -- Rees-Mogg.
Stand down as Tory leader, making way for a new leader who would then call a general election. The Brexit ultras would leave the party, and stand either as independents or as members of some new, not-very-improved version of UKIP. They would lose.
Is it unlikely? Of course it is. Is it, or something like it, impossible? Not necessarily.
'One longstanding attendee said it was “a boys’ night out” and compared it to “a rugby club dinner”.'
'These are not underage girls. They are all over 18 ... They all know it’s a bit racy.'
'The girls were told to wear short skirts and sexy underwear and sign a non-disclosure agreement. Where on earth did they think they would be working, a vicar's tea party?'
And more, much more, in the same vein following the Financial Times story on Wednesday about a men-only charity dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
So let us try to imagine what goes on inside the head of a man who thinks there is absolutely nothing wrong with telling a young woman whom he has never met before and who is a paid worker at a dinner he is attending that he wants her to 'rip off her knickers and dance on a table.'
This same man presumably thinks it is perfectly acceptable that, in the words of the FT's report: 'Many of the hostesses were subjected to groping, lewd comments and repeated requests to join diners in bedrooms ...'
I am trying to imagine the life this man has led. Perhaps he went to a boys-only school, where as an adolescent, he got into the habit of making smutty jokes about girls and boasting about his (fictional) sexual exploits.
He played in boys-only sports matches, followed by booze-fuelled, boys-only after-match parties. If he went on to university, perhaps he joined a men-only drinking club, at which adolescent behaviour was not only accepted, but expected.
Perhaps now that he is middle-aged, he has a teenage daughter of his own. What would he say if she were to be subjected to the sort of behaviour he indulged in at the Presidents Club dinner? Oh, but she wouldn't be, would she, because she would never do the sort of job for which the young women at the Dorchester were being paid the princely sum of £150, would she?
Look back at one of those comments I quoted earlier. 'The girls were told to wear short skirts and sexy underwear ...' In other words, they knew perfectly well what they were being paid for: to be groped, fondled, and propositioned.
Er, no, actually, they weren't. Just as actresses in Victorian England weren't prostitutes, nor are hostesses in 2018. Women who dress to be attractive to men, whether on instruction or otherwise, are as entitled as everyone else to be treated with respect.
Two simple words are the key to the non-mystery of why some men insist on behaving boorishly: money and power. ('Presidents Club': interesting name, don't you think? Exactly what did these men think they were Presidents of, I wonder?)
The men at that now notorious dinner would have us believe that they were there for no other reason than to give some of their wealth to charity. What could possibly be more deserving of our praise and admiration?
I am (just about) prepared to accept that for some of them, it went no further than that, although I confess I fail to understand why it requires a men-only, black-tie dinner at the Dorchester to donate to good causes. Most of us manage it a good deal less ostentatiously.
But for others, the dinner surely provided a wonderful excuse to feel entitled: 'Look at me, I'm giving away some of my money -- so surely I deserve some fun in return?'
They were there (all right, some of them were there) because they knew that they would be out of sight of their mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and daughters -- free to indulge in the sort of adolescent behaviour which had become second nature to them. The charity bit was no more than a figleaf with which to hide their guilty consciences.
They were, in their own eyes, at least, men who had made a success of their lives. They had amassed enough money to buy them the right to behave however they liked, especially towards younger, less wealthy women. It is only one remove from the medieval droit de seigneur, which supposedly entitled feudal lords to have sex with the brides of their vassals.
So how about someone trying to teach adolescent boys how to behave appropriately towards their female fellow-humans? How about those much-mocked PSHE (personal, sex and health education) lessons involving something more than slipping a condom onto a banana?
Some schools are trying -- one day a year, perhaps, devoted to relationships -- but they plainly need to do more. Too many men, of all ages, still don't get it. Ill-educated adolescent males are still growing up into ill-educated adult males.
Yes, they can behave as badly as they like in the privacy of their own homes, as long as they harm no one else. If they want to sit in front of the TV getting pissed with their mates, shouting rude remarks at every attractive young woman who appears on screen, by all means, let them go ahead.
But here is the message they need to hear, loud and clear: No, you can't do it in the workplace, or at a charity dinner. You can't assault, grope, harass or intimidate anyone. It doesn't matter how they are dressed, or how much you're giving to charity. It doesn't matter if you're a hot-shot film producer or merely a Loadsamoney property developer.
I can even boil the message down to two words: Grow. Up.
I strongly suspect that the world would be a much better place if we journalists were never allowed to go into politics. (Although I suppose that, if pressed, I might make an exception for Winston Churchill.)
We suffer from an alarming tendency to believe in simple answers. We prize making an impact over getting things right, and an off-the-cuff opinion over a considered judgement.
As the American journalist Andrew Ferguson put it many years ago: 'Journalism is a character defect. ... It is a life lived at a safe remove: standing off to one side of the parade as it passes, noting its flaws, offering glib and unworkable suggestions for its improvement. Every journalist must know that this is not, really, how a serious-minded person would choose to spend his days.'
Ouch. A good journalist might know how to ask the right questions, but a good politician knows how to find the right answers. There's a big difference.
Exhibit One: Toby Young, former provocateur extraordinaire, a man so proud of his ability to get up people's noses that he wrote a book called 'How to lose friends and alienate people'. It was later made into a film, but it demonstrated, as Young continued to do for many years, an unusual knack for being both offensive and wrong.
If that's how you get your kicks, fine. But as Young has belatedly discovered, it becomes a bit of a problem if you then try to reinvent yourself as a serious educational reformer with ideas that deserve to be listened to by policy-makers. What seemed clever when you were in the losing friends business risks backfiring when you start trying to win allies.
So I'm afraid I have little sympathy now that he has had to resign as a member of the board of the higher education regulator, the Office for Students. As a puerile wordsmith, he can comment till he's blue in the face about women's body shapes (while watching prime minister's questions in 2012, he tweeted: 'Serious cleavage behind Ed Miliband’s head. Anyone know who it belongs to?')
He can also, if he insists, be crassly offensive about people who don't share his superior intellect: 'If Gove is serious about wanting to bring back O-levels, the Government will have to repeal the Equalities Act, because any exam that isn’t "accessible" to a functionally illiterate troglodyte with a mental age of six will be judged to be "elitist".' But he shouldn't be surprised if some people take such comments as suggesting that he may not be the ideal person to sit on the board of an education regulator.
Let's not obsess too much about Toby Young. Exhibits Two and Three: the Terrible Twins, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. Both of them former journalists (Gove at the BBC and The Times; Johnson at The Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Spectator), both of them with a marked talent for bad judgement and a preference for the short-term over the long-term. Definitely not a good advertisement for the journalist-politician brand.
Of course, there are exceptions. There always are. Whatever you think of his, er, whacky views on climate change, no one could argue that Nigel Lawson (another former editor of The Spectator) wasn't a serious politician in his time as Margaret Thatcher's chancellor of the exchequer. Likewise Ed Balls (former Financial Times leader writer), notwithstanding his decision to reinvent himself on Strictly Come Dancing.
Michael Foot was a first-rate journalist (editor of the Evening Standard at the age of 28) but not such a success as leader of the Labour party; Bill Deedes, on the other hand, seems to have made a pretty good fist of being both a Cabinet minister (1962-64) under Harold Macmillan and editor of the Daily Telegraph (1974-86).
Norman Fowler (formerly of The Times) is now Speaker of the House of Lords, so he's done all right; Ben Bradshaw (BBC) served as culture secretary under Gordon Brown; and Ruth Davidson (also BBC) is leader of the Scottish Conservatives and increasingly spoken of as a future party leader, so she's not done too badly either.
Overall, however, the record is not encouraging for journalists with political ambitions. Much better to stick to asking questions rather than trying to answer them, and -- as Toby Young has shown -- indulge our talent for losing friends rather than try to win allies.
Oh, and a final thought: I feel much the same way about celebrity-politicians. I suspect I need hardly mention the current occupant of the White House, but I'd also harbour grave doubts if Oprah Winfrey decided to try her hand at politics. Being good on TV is not the same as being good at running a country.
Nor is being good at running a business. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, please note.
They also, especially towards the end of their lives, had benefitted from superb care paid for by the NHS. Even when doctors, nurses and other staff were working under immense stress, they were unfailingly kind and professional.
Like millions of other people who have had similar experiences, I have nothing but admiration for the medical and other staff who keep the NHS going, through thick and thin, winter and summer, flu outbreaks and terrorist attacks.
I have rather less admiration for the politicians who have systematically starved the health service of the resources it so desperately needs to provide for the ever-increasing demands of an ageing population.
How Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, can be spoken of as a minister who has done his job so well that he deserves a promotion, is something I shall never begin to understand.
According to The Times: 'Tory MPs increasingly admire Mr Hunt, 51, for his perseverance in a difficult brief.' Others, however, are reported to fear that he is still regarded as 'toxic' by some sections of the public.
Consider me among those sections. Consider me also among those who remember the British Red Cross warning exactly a year ago -- a year ago! -- that the NHS was facing a 'humanitarian crisis' following the deaths of two patients after long waits on trolleys in hospital corridors.
There are many problems in the world that Theresa May can do little or nothing about. The war in Syria, Donald Trump, North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, the agonies of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
There are others where she can make a very real, immediate difference -- and the NHS is one of them.
So how has she reacted as the long-predicted winter crisis blew up in her face? 'I know it’s difficult, I know it’s frustrating, and I know it’s disappointing for people, and I apologise.'
Difficult? Disappointing? Has Mrs May ever been stuck on a hospital trolley in A&E, waiting in agony, terrified that she had been forgotten? Has she ever pysched herself up ahead of an operation, done all the pre-op things she had been instructed to do, made arrangements to put her life on hold, spent a sleepless night fretting about what might happen if the op goes wrong, only to be told when she gets to the hospital: 'Oh sorry, we've had to reschedule your operation, you can go home again.'?
What should she have said? 'I readily acknowledge that the NHS is facing a funding crisis. I am taking immediate steps to reverse the £2 billion of income tax cuts and £1 billion of welfare cuts that came into force last April -- 80% of the benefit of which went to better-off households -- and will plough the extra revenue back into the NHS.
'I will also plough extra money back into local council budgets, so that they can start to rebuild their social care provision and relieve some of the pressure on hospital beds. In addition, I want to say loud and clear that there will always be a valued place for non-British born staff in the NHS, that we will guarantee their long-term future in this country, regardless of any Brexit deal that may eventually be agreed with the EU, and that we shall continue to recruit from overseas to fill some of the 10,000 unfilled doctor posts and 40,000 nurse vacancies.'
But of course, she can't -- won't -- say anything like it. Because she still believes there is 'waste' in the NHS, that 'efficiencies' are required, and that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Nigel Farage still poses an existential threat to her party and her government.
Is the NHS perfect? Of course not. Could it be better run? No question. Are there lessons that under-performing Trusts could learn from the better-run ones? I'm sure there are.
But not while front-line staff and managers alike are battling to keep the service functioning at all. Not while they are on the edge of physical and emotional collapse as a result of the 'challenges' that confront them.
And not while both the prime minister and the health secretary think it's enough to say how much they appreciate what NHS staff do. Fine words butter no parsnips, as the old saying goes -- nor do they save an NHS in dire crisis.
It's all too easy to obsess about the latest lunacies from the White House, or the dismal prospect of never-ending Brexit rows. Once in a while, we need to look at what's happening right under our noses, in doctors' surgeries and local hospitals all over the country.
And then tell our MPs what we expect them to do about it.