clear glass with brown liquid

REFLECTION

Between the Lines started in 2019. At the time, Theresa May was desperately trying to ram her Withdrawal Agreement Bill through parliament, no-one had a damn clue what was going on, and faith in and understanding of politics in the UK was at an all-time low.

I hoped at the time that I could help people understand the seismic changes that were happening to their livelihoods through a dash of reality, a healthy dollop of facts, and a cheery little sprinkle of heavy, heavy sarcasm. Turns out that’s harder than it sounds.

But rather than get stuck into all the hows and whats of where we are, I wanted to write a short piece about why I started Between the Lines.

The short answer is: my dad, who died five years ago tonight.


I idolised my dad. Desperately so.

Despite dad going to boarding school from the earliest possible moment and being from private-school stock, he never once considered himself to be above others. Despite his successes, no-one was beneath him, in his eyes.

One of the most vibrant memories of my childhood was going to an extended-family birthday party when I was thirteen and feeling small, angry and vulnerable. Some of my family members who were around the same age as me were playing rounders with their (in my mind) ostensibly cooler, better-dressed friends from the local comprehensive school. Meanwhile, I, recently accepted to public school and feeling cock-a-hoop, hung around the drinks table, choosing a cool glass of apple juice with a soda chaser as my tipple.

I cannot tell you how much I resented those kids. They struck me as confident, handsome and better than me. And by the way, I was wearing a beige, roll-neck Gap jumper – realistically, on the fashion sense at least, I stood no chance. But rather than face my anxieties of being a chubby little tween, I diverted my ire to those who made me feel small by channelling my privilege.

It would be the first and last time I did so.

A couple of days later, dad was driving me home from seeing a friend, and I decided to speak about those people who I’d met at the party as though they weren’t even worth my time – because, one day, when I was at public school, I’d be better than them.

After I’d said my piece, the silence in the car wasn’t so much as deafening as it was soul-destroying. I felt the palpable disappointment in my dad through the silence.

He didn’t say anything for the rest of the journey. He just let my words reverberate around the car.

When we got home, he cornered me. He told me that what I had said was absolutely disgraceful, and that he was incredibly disappointed in me. In the space of three minutes, my dad taught me that there was no-one, no-one, regardless of upbringing, creed, or colour, who is better or worse than any other. We are all equal.

This conversation, nigh-on twenty years ago, made me the man I am today. I felt so disgusted, so ashamed of myself for falling back on the easy way to define myself, that I never did it again.

It defined who I am, what I stand for, and why I am trying, slowly but surely, to make people more aware of who they are and, especially, to listen to those who disagree with them.

And that’s the way to make politics palatable.


In the last five years, we’ve seen Brexit, Trump, populism, nationalism and a plethora of worrying trends emerge. We might, just, be on the other side of Trumpism, but the sentiment behind it all is still going to be there.

If we agree that the culture war isn’t finished (which it absolutely isn’t), we will not eventually win by hoping that the other side will recognise they’re wrong.

We have to listen. We have to engage.

There is something palpable in the hearts of those who have been ignored by politics for generations – it’s something real, something that cannot be ignored, and something that cannot be “solved” be the sheer willpower of “my ideology being better than yours”.

While we might see Biden as a leading light for what comes next in the UK, we should bear in mind that we are still at least three years away from another general election, and Brexit isn’t done yet. We as a nation are nowhere close to being done with COVID-19, despite the vaccines.

The real change doesn’t come from being lucky that Oxford University created a vaccine, especially given the offerings from Pfizer and Moderna. It comes from being world leaders in thought, ethics, and law.

Which the Britain I know, love and celebrate, is, at its heart.


I have had an immensely privileged life. I am slowly, but surely, trying to turn that privilege into something positive. Between the Lines will continue to play a major part in it.

But, five years on, all I can do tonight is raise another glass of Famous Grouse in honour of my dad.

If nothing else, I know he would be proud of the sentiment (despite the 3.30am writing time).

Where we go from here, we’ll have to wait and see. We would all do well, however, at this time of some hope, to listen to those who we don’t agree with. Even if we don’t agree, we might at least understand our arguments for next time.

And, as my dad instilled in me from a young age – our arguments are no better than anyone else’s at face value. We have to earn trust in our own through hard work and understanding.

Otherwise, we won’t change anything.

God rest you, Dad. You would have found this world that you left behind absolutely fascinating.


Thank you all so much for your readership and support.

Something more on-brand and irreverant to follow (soon).

Matt Underhill

Founder and Editor

brown hen near white egg on nest

VOTE LEAVE LEAVES: Johnson Isolated and Isolating

And then there were none.

Last week saw divisions at the heart of Number 10 culminating in Boris Johnson’s two most trusted and senior political advisors being given their marching orders.

Lee Cain, Director of Communications, was dismissed on Thursday night, with self-described super-forecaster and Brexit architect Dominic Cummings following him on Friday. Given Cain’s propensity to dress up as a chicken and Cummings’ shining, bald bonce, we do finally have an answer to who left first at least – the chicken, not the egg.

While Cain’s exit was somewhat subdued, Cummings took the opportunity one last time to make the story about him. Specifically, him in the role of down-and-out hero at the end of the third quarter of a Disney film, just before his narrative arc completes itself and he realises that, “It wasn’t Britain what needed fixin’, it was me all along.”

And then, just to top it all off, Johnson announced that he is self-isolating for two weeks, having come into contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.

Put your feet up, Mr. J. It’s not like we’ve got a looming Brexit deadline, collapsing Test-and-Trace programme or upcoming vaccine rollout to organise.


LEAVE MEANS LEAVE, PREFERABLY NOWISH

Say what you will about Dominic Cummings, but he has had an astonishing level of influence over British politics for the last few years.

The beating heart of the Vote Leave campaign, Cummings’ ability as a campaigner is not in doubt. He tapped into the heart of something that the rest of the political world had decidedly overlooked for quite some time – namely, the electorate. Where politicians had been aloof and distant, he plugged the gaps. Where the left-behind and the desperate had been abandoned, he gave them hope. Where the people were ignored, he listened.

His campaigning for Brexit was nothing short of revolutionary and he deserves the utmost respect for what he achieved. It’s a shame, therefore, that Cummings’ output as a political advisor, rather than as a campaigner, has been an absolute shower of hot garbage from the outset.

The problem has always been that the actual day-to-day of running a government relies almost entirely on compromise. In order to get anything done, you have to listen to opposing views from the Opposition or Civil Service, form alliances, and have a willingness to be flexible.

Cummings is, by his very nature, as flexible as a stale Weetabix. A campaigner will take the issue that they believe in and find the best way to sell it, with no room for compromise. A campaigner at the heart of government, therefore, is probably going to ruffle a few feathers.

And “Dom” has clearly ruffled more feathers than a fox let loose at Birdworld. With a natural distrust of the Civil Service, a history of less-than-sympathetic views of the Conservative Party and a general willingness to blow things up to piece them back together again, it is unsurprising that he found his allies few and far between last week.

Having doled out millions of pounds to private consultancy firms, pushed an unwavering “No-one likes us and we don’t care” message to Tory MPs and the electorate alike and, lest we forget, breaking lockdown rules to have an eye-test on the A688, Cummings was never going to last forever.

Cain, a long-term ally of Cummings and fellow Vote Leave bigwig, caused quite a ruckus about Allegra Stratton’s appointment as the government’s new press chief, and ultimately made his position untenable. Cummings could have stayed, but chose to leave with him.

Thus ends the Vote Leave faction at the heart of British politics.

…Just as we reach the final (probably) deadline for agreeing a deal with the EU, or leaving with no deal.

Coincidence?


A NEW DAWN?

Unfortunately, we can only really speculate as to the timing of Cain and Abel’s departures.

Was there a serious, damaging rift in No. 10? Almost certainly.

Would this be enough, on its own, to see Johnson’s two closest allies leave? Probably not, especially seeing as one has already broken the law and stayed put.

Does this week’s Brexit deadline has anything to do with it? Maybe.

Have they actually gone? Probably, though Cummings is still doing work on Operation Mooncup or whatever the hell it is until Christmas.

One Nation Tories who remember Johnson as being the affable, more collaborative Mayor of London are praying that the Vote Leave team’s departure means that the Prime Minister can revert back to being “2012 Boris” again. Some are speculating that Trump’s downfall across the pond has shaken his trust in populist rule. Some believe that he might go for a softer Brexit without Cummings in his ear and accept a deal.

Don’t be so sure.

While Johnson might, at his core, be a more progressive Tory than he appears, he hasn’t forgotten the “Red Wall” seats that he gained at the last election. While Joe Biden is no fan of Brexit, as he has made abundantly clear, Johnson cannot renege on his promise to the Northern voters he gained last December.

With or without Cummings, Johnson has set a tone for his premiership. Yes, he might be able to repair some of the damage done to the Tory party and yes, he might be less combative when challenged. But do not think for one moment that we are suddenly going to get a brand-new, pumped-up Johnson (ew) just because Cummings and Cain have gone.

The one clear message coming out of multiple Westminster sources is that Johnson is gaining a deep-rooted reputation as being indecisive. The direction his government has tacked to since taking office might have been largely influenced by “Classic Dom” Cummings, but much-needed leadership at No.10 will not simply appear by magic now that he’s gone.

Additionally, Johnson’s two-week isolation period could not have come at a worse time. With Brexit negotiations expected to be completed, one way or another, in the coming days, an absent Prime Minister does not a good omen make.

That being said, the circumstances might be fortuitous – should the coronavirus vaccine be rolled out quickly and effectively, should the economy bounce back strongly, and should Brexit be negotiated without catastrophe (arguably more likely with the PM sidelined), then Johnson will undoubtedly get some of his swagger back.

And frankly, a confident, happy Boris Johnson at a time where we’re celebrating the end of the pandemic might just be something of a tonic for an embittered nation.

Until the next scandal comes out, at least.

usa flag waving on white metal pole

IT’S OVER… RIGHT? : The 2020 US Election


Good grief. That was a deeply stressful few days.

Full disclosure – I wish I had been able to write about this sooner, but in a very odd turn of events I found myself on the island of Tenerife during the US election. My partner and I had a holiday booked for last Tuesday and, well… it wasn’t cancelled, the holiday provider gave us a thousand and one assurances about it being COVID-safe and the tourism industry was already on its knees…

So we went. And very lovely it was, too. Thanks for asking.

I implore you to spare a thought for my poor partner, however. All she wanted to do was unwind, relax, and pretend the world wasn’t on fire. I, on the other hand, stayed up until 2.30am most nights, watching John King relentlessly go through the state-by-state voting data like an electoral Terminator on CNN Worldwide, and spent the days glued to Twitter to watch the results come in for illustrious districts like Susquehanna, PA or Muscogee, GA.

Thankfully, my partner knows me well enough by now to allow me such indulgences. But it was all a bit surreal, watching arguably the most important election in a generation while surrounded by masked, sunburnt Englishmen pounding back the Amstels at 10am.

But, at long, long, looong last, Joe Biden was predicted to have enough votes to be named President-elect. With him comes Kamala Harris, the first female VP, the first VP with mixed heritage, and an all-round boss.

In normal times, that would be that. But, lest we forget, Donald Trump remains President of the United States for now.

And he is not going quietly.


ELECTION FRIGHT

The sentiments running up to Tuesday evening consisted of cautious optimism from the Democrats to nervous alarm from the Republicans. Opinion polls, having been running for weeks, had Joe Biden with a considerable lead over Trump, moreso even than Hillary Clinton back in 2016. Opinion polls had been wrong (so very, very wrong) in the past, but they had learnt from their mistakes, updated their methodologies, and were confident that their predictions were accurate.

Or so they said. Turns out, once again, they were wrong.

Initially, they appeared to be not just wrong, but disastrously wrong, again. At the end of election night, the clear Biden victory was nowhere to be seen. Not only were he and Trump seemingly neck-and-neck on the popular vote (i.e. who got the most number of votes overall), Trump looked like he was in line to win some of the key battleground states that Biden needed to stand a chance at gaining the presidency.

I stopped watching at around 2.30am GMT. It was clear that, after initially falling behind, Trump was going to win Florida. Florida is an exceptionally odd place, and this carries through to Presidential elections, too – it has a number of wildly variable districts within it that vary from OJ-drinking, retirement village sunset towns to bohemian, multicultural hotspots. Florida has often been the state that decides elections (e.g. Bush v. Gore, 2000), and, this time, it was Trump’s.

This did not bode well. At the very least, it proved that the predicted Biden landslide was not forthcoming. Despite the chaotic nature of his presidency, despite the embarassments, and, most of all, despite the fact that 250,000 Americans are likely to die of coronavirus because of Trump’s leadership, he was still very much in the race.

The momentum was with Trump. If trends continued without any major upsets, it looked like he was going to win a second term. But this was no ordinary election – I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s a global pandemic on at the moment.

Having survived it once, it was always going to be by destiny’s hand that Trump should be undone by the coronavirus at the second time of asking.


GOING POSTAL

In the run-up to the election, Joe Biden relentlessly campaigned for voters to vote by postal ballot in advance of election day. Ostensibly, this was to protect the public – voting in the US usually results in huge queues of people waiting to exercise their democratic rights in the street. Given the coronavirus’ propensity to spread at public gatherings, Biden wanted as many people as possible to avoid the crowds on election day.

Trump, by contrast, rallied hard against postal voting. He claimed, without a shred of evidence, that it was far more likely to result in fraudulent results, to be subject to tampering, and to undermine democracy. His blasé attitude to the coronavirus was apparent in the run-up to election night, as he flew from rally to rally of thousands of crowds and encouraged them all to vote in person.

It is worth noting at this point that even though postal votes are done before election-day voting, in many states they are counted after the in-person votes on election night.

…Can you see where this is going?

Millions upon millions of Democrats voted through by postal ballot. Very few Republicans did by comparison, who voted in-person instead. As such, on election night, when the first, in-person results started coming in from the battleground states, they were heavily skewed in favour of the Republicans.

Then the postal votes started to be counted.

The best example of how Trump’s lead slowly evaporated is Pennsylvania, the state that eventually won Biden the presidency. At midnight EST on Tuesday, Trump’s lead was around 550,000. By 7am, it was at 700,000. These are big numbers for a single state, even one the size of Pennsylvania.

Then, at 10am, Trump’s meltdown began. The lead shrank to 590,000 by 10am. Early in the afternoon, Trump’s son Eric helpfully tweeted:

But as Twitter itself was starting to point out, the claims coming out of Camp Trump were unfounded, untrue and increasingly desperate. They knew what was coming.

Thus began what is hopefully the last great embarassment of Trump’s presidency – the continued, unfounded claim that the election has been fraudulent.

On Thursday, Trump tweeted:

Knowing that his lead was disappearing, he started claiming that the votes being counted were illegal and that there was vote rigging happening in the counting stations across the battleground states. He urged his supporters to prevent the rest of the count from happening in the states that he was going to lose, although perhaps unsurprisingly not in the states he was going to win.

In a moment of agonisingly painful desperation, Trump gave a statement from the White House saying that he had “won” Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia and Pennsylvania and that the continued counting was tantamount to election-rigging.

It was deeply embarassing to watch, and it was all in vain. By Friday, his lead in Pennsylvania had gone, along with his presidency.

Then, on Saturday, the media outlets began declaring for Biden. It’s a strange element of the US elections that the winner is declared before all votes are counted, but they only do so when it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that a candidate has an insurmountable lead.

CNN. MSNBC. The Associated Press. Within a few minutes of one another, they all made the call. Then, finally, Trump’s preferred broadcaster, the heavily-Republican Fox News, conceded defeat, too. Joe Biden was to be the USA’s next President.

And that was that, you would think.

And if you did, you’d be forgetting that there are still a few weeks left for 2020 to eke the last few drips of joy out of us.


T-RUMP PRESIDENT

As of Wednesday, 11th November, a full week after election night, Trump still has not conceded defeat.

He is trying to mount legal challenges in all of the states where he initially led but was then thwarted by postal ballots. He’s applying pressure on his Republican allies to stay in line, where their immediate reaction would probably be to distance themselves as far as humanly possible from an increasingly volatile rump president. And, perhaps most worryingly, he’s fired a number of Pentagon staff and is filling the roles with allies.

So. What’s going to happen?

Well, for a start, he stands as much chance of winning all his legal challenges as I do in a one-on-one wrestling match against a mountain grizzly – something very, very suprising might happen, but he’s probably going to get mauled.

His allies are, one by one, falling away, and more and more Republicans are urging him to concede defeat and not damage the party further (including, very notably, Fox News). While a few hardliners might stick around long enough to go down with a rapidly-sinking ship, it seems far more likely that as the final routes to an unearned victory disappear, Trump will start to find himself feeling very, very lonely.

And an actual coup? While the reports coming out of the Pentagon don’t make for pretty reading (he’s refusing to share vital national intelligence documents with Biden, for instance), it is, at the end of the day, a mere tantrum.

As Biden himself has said, a Trump concession would be “nice to have” but isn’t vital. Come January 20th, Trump will be evicted from the White House, or, should he refuse to go, create a logistical headache that is, at most, deeply amusing for his critics. Ultimately, though, he cannot prevent Biden from, you know, actually running the country.

So while this is all a bit alarming and deeply embarassing for the democratic process, don’t panic – it will all be over soon.

Trump hates losing. According to reports about his childhood, his emotionally-abusive father essentially refused to even acknowledge his son if he ever failed at something. It is, to use a word coined by the toussle-haired, Tango’ed tinpot totalitarian himself, sad.

He will do everything in his power to stop what’s happening. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have much power any more.


HOUSEKEEPING

A little while ago, I announced that BTL would be constructing a number of “Politics 101” cheat sheets to explain the British political system, major political philosophies and other things you want to know about. These are still under construction, but I’m hoping to have them up and running in time for Christmas.

I know, I know – just call me Santa Clause IV (One for you New Labour types).

Additionally, in the next few days I’m going to be writing a love-letter to politics in general, where I’ll explain how we can all get on a little better and try to repair the damage of the last few years. This will be an essay addressed to those on both Left and Right, and I’d hugely appreciate it if you could share it with friends and family when it’s up.

Lastly, I’ve finally caught up with the twenty-first century and have started using Instagram. While I’ve yet to construct a page for Between the Lines, I have decided to flex those creative muscles by writing three short poems a week about political goings on.

This is called Poetically Incorrect, and you can find it here. As a taster, here is the first post:

I’d be hugely grateful for a… oh god… like, share and subscribe.

That’s it. I’ve officially lost my soul.

Many thanks for reading and your continued support. We live in strange times, but they might, just might, be heading back towards normality again.

With love,

Matt, Founder and Editor