GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE : The Dis-United Kingdom

Well that can’t be good.

Over the weekend, The Sunday Times revealed that the UK was at its most likely to disintegrate since…

Well, ever.

According to the ST, 50% of Scottish and 51% of Northern Irish voters want a border poll in the next five years. Not only that, even Wales, lovely, trustworthy Wales, stands at 31% wanting a vote.

It gets worse. 42% of Northern Irish people want a unified Ireland, up to 47% among the under-45s, 23% of Welsh voters want independence, up from the percentages in the teens just five years ago, and, best of all, there is a majority in Scotland for independence. The split?

52 : 48.

And we all know how well that goes.


YOU CAN TAKE OUR LIVES…

For most of this article, I’ll be focussing on the issue of Scottish independence. Not just because it’s the most likely and the most immediate concern, but also because I am a quarter Scottish. I have written about Scottish independence before, and you can find the article here.

I was a bit younger, quite a bit angrier, and I swore more.

The issue of Scottish independence has reared its head before, most memorably in the 2014 independence referendum, in which Scotland chose to remain by 55% to 45%. This margin of victory is particularly irritating. It’s not quite small enough for the Scottish National Party (SNP) to argue that there’s scope for a majority due to turnout, but it’s also not quite big enough to definitively end the debate once and for all.

And now, when you add Brexit, coronavirus and, yes, Boris Johnson to the mix, the gap seems far, far smaller. Look at the polls – while famously inaccurate, they are still giving the politicians in Westminster cause to splutter out their brandies in shock.

Look, Brexit and Boris go hand-in-hand like two lemmings skipping towards the White Cliffs of Dover at top speed. Scotland voted convincingly in favour of remaining in the EU (62%) and the SNP have made rejoining it a cornerstone of their independence campaign. Now that we’ve left and Scottish fishermen are literally driving lorries of rotting fish to Westminster to show how well it’s going, there’s little surprise that this will add fuel to the independence fire.

But Boris seems to be ubiquitous for all things politically shite for the Scots. Before coronavirus was nary a small, escaped germ on the back of a Chinese scientist’s lab coat (possibly, he says for legal reasons), Johnson was already loathed by Scottish people…

And then the pandemic struck. I haven’t minced my words when it comes to Johnson’s government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, but it seems as though the Scots are even more critical than I am. Some more stats from The Sunday Times:

  • 42% think their country would have handled it better were they independent (vs. 23% who disagree);
  • 53% think the decisions should be made in Edinburgh;
  • 22% think Johnson has done a good job at handling the pandemic;
  • Whereas 61% think Nicola Sturgeon (leader of the SNP) has done a good job.

This is uncomfortable reading. The Scottish people clearly think that Johnson has been a useless bawbag when it comes to handling the crisis and blame him for the number of deaths that Scotland has suffered. 37% think that independence is likely if he remains “in charge”, compared to 29% for Rishi Sunak and 27% for Keir Starmer.

Clearly, in Barrowfield that Johnson charm goes down as well as a fart in a ceiling fan.

So what does all this mean? There are local elections in Scotland coming up and the SNP is expected to absolutely mop up. Sturgeon is going to claim that this gives her a new mandate for an independence referendum, which Johnson has explicitly said he will not countenance.

Sturgeon could order a non legally-recognised referendum like in Catalonia in Spain, but also knows that this risks sowing more division than unity in her vision. Additionally, the whispers in Westminster are that the government is planning to have a review into how governance is carried out in Britain, which could feasibly lead to greater devolved powers going to Holyrood or, at least, more money. Add to this the ongoing row within the SNP about whether or not its previous leader, Alex Salmond, sexually molested someone and Sturgeon hushed it up, and nothing is certain.

But it seems as though the case for independence is growing. Not just in Scotland, but in the other devolved states, too. The end of the United Kingdom as we know it could well happen within the next couple of decades. This makes me extremely sad.

But do you know what? I’m not entirely sure I blame them.


RUE BRITANNIA

As I mentioned, I’m a quarter Scottish. This, to my mind, makes me British. Whenever I fill out surveys or forms, I always put British over English. To my mind, I identify as being a citizen of the United Kingdom far more than I do being a citizen of England.

And don’t get me wrong, England is lovely. Beautiful countryside; punching above our weight financially, culturally and politically for our size; iconic locations and a profound aura of history behind us.

But I have to say, I’m proud of being British. I’m not proud of being English.

Britain’s makeup has always favoured England, as it should, to an extent – larger population, larger economy etc etc. But this has taken us to a deeply alarming sense of cultural superiority. Our London-centric democracy has given rise to resentment from the devolved nations, and successive English prime ministers have failed to address it.

This superiority has filtered down to English people, too. Just look at how our national football fans act when following the team abroad. Look at Brexit. Look at increasingly right-wing views on immigration and multiculturalism. Our exceptionalism has become aggressive and overt, based on some antiquated notion of empire and cultural hegemony.

And I despise it.

I know that it’s not all English people, and I know that everyone is entitled to their opinions, but it’s just not me. I believe in a world where borders are there for identification’s sake only, and where we welcome diversity of culture and thought.

But Little England is doing its best to throttle it. Johnson’s 80-seat majority on a platform of small-mindedness and closed borders couldn’t be clearer.

And the Scottish people, and, increasingly, Northern Irish and Welsh people, too, envisage a different future. When I wrote my last article, I called in favour of the union, begging Scottish people to remain a part of the Great British project.

Now, I’m not so sure. The louder the voices in Westminster declare we are “world-beating,” the further I think it to be from the truth. If we can listen to the people from our devolved nations, if the English can stop thinking ourselves so superior, and if we can rally the union to provide a united platform to grow after the pandemic, then our place at the top table of world politics might still be intact.

Otherwise, I’m just not sure we’ll be relevant in twenty years from now. Rich, maybe. But relevant?

We’ll have to wait and see.

HI THEN, BIDEN : Notes From Joe Biden’s Inauguration


Trump is gone. So long, and thanks for all the fascism.

Yesterday marked the inauguration of Joe Biden as the USA’s 46th President. Trump left the White House at 8am, and left in his typical style – refusing to concede, refusing to refer to Joe Biden by his name, and wishing his followers “a good life,” before vowing to return.

We’d really rather you didn’t, Donald. Hopefully impeachment will see to that anyway – if the Senate moves to convict him, he can never run for office again.

Which means someone far worse might run instead.

But anyway, let’s not dwell on that. Whatever happens, we have four years at least of something vaguely resembling normality. This should be celebrated, so celebrate we shall. Crack open the bubbly (or the non-alcoholic version if you’re bold enough to do Dry January this year, of all years), sit back, relax, and be thankful to your god that the president who amounted to little more than a sack of racist sausage meat piped into a tangerine skin-suit is gone.


WINTER CHILLS

Yesterday had a curious feel to it. Obama’s inauguration felt like an explosion of catharticism, with American citizens of multiple races, faiths and backgrounds openly weeping. Trump’s felt like bad dream. But Biden’s had a sense of apprehensive relief washed over it.

While yes, Trump is gone, Biden’s task is no easy one. Over 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus and counting. A flatlined economy. Racial tensions at their worst in decades. Armed militias threatening civil war. It’s an in-tray from the depths of hell itself, and Biden knows it.

Despite this, the day was still full of optimism. The weather, sensing an opportunity, decided to go all teenage art-student and become a fully-blown metaphor. Cold winds and snow buffeted the Capitol building, now besieged by former Presidents’ egos rather than conspiracy theorists. Despite the inclement weather, the line-up was a pretty incredible window into recent history, as they always are.

Michelle Obama looked incredible, obviously, and her husband (Barry something?) looked dapper as all hell, too. George W. Bush looked older but dignified (remember when we thought that he was a moronic president?), Bill Clinton looked gaunt, and Mike Pence looked like the kid at the birthday party who had to be invited, but who has never been popular on account of his penchant for shaving cats.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate who has been prominently critical of Trump since the Capitol attack, was present, as was Ted Cruz, who is still a Trump supporter, and who wore a mask saying “Come and Get It.” The sooner politics is rid of that supine toad, the better.

The pomp and ceremony was in as full a swing as it could be – the millions of Americans that would usually attend replaced by flags and all guests socially-distanced. Trump, if he were able to Tweet, would probably have chimed in with some stupid bollocks like, “Not the same numbers as my inauguration. The People love the OLD President!!! Fav Prez. SAD.” Thankfully, he wasn’t, so he didn’t. In fact, he was off in Florida at a party, probably enjoying his last days of freedom before he’s indicted for crimes against his country.

The military band played through all the hits, the trumpeters playing with their masks pulled down to their chins. Presumably, if one of the trumpeters were infectious, blasting out a banging version of “The Star Spangled Banner” would make the trumpet itself some kind of face-loaded coronavirus canon.

But anyway. They were probably all fine.

A couple of hitches aside, such as Ron Blunt’s microphone positioning looking like he was motorboating a miniature robo-Madonna:

…the ceremony started smoothly.

Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff, the first ever “Second Gentleman of the United States,” emerged onto the podium looking every bit the part of the history they were about to make. President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Dr. Jill followed them soon after, and, I’m not going to lie, watching Joe Biden walk down stairs is an alarmingly heart-in-mouth affair.

Leo O’Donovan, the priest who presided over the funeral of Biden’s son, Beau, gave a moving sermon, and Biden himself looked quite close to tears. But then it was time for some star power.

Who else but Gaga.

By her standards, Lady Gaga was quite dressed-down for the occasion, wearing a black top with enormous gold brooch, and a billowy red dress/tutu/thing (I’m not good with ladies’ fashion. Or men’s fashion, actually). This prompted my Mum to quietly remark, “She looks like a loo roll holder,” and then Gaga took hold of her golden microphone and belted out the national anthem.

A prominent Democrat supporter, she looked thrilled to be there. It’s worth noting at this stage that Trump is reportedly furious with how many celebrities were a part of Biden’s inauguration and subsequent party. For his inauguration, he got something like Boyz 2 Men, Smash Mouth and Barry from Eastenders.

By contrast, Tom Hanks hosted the party that was shown after Biden’s inauguration.

Then came the inauguration of Kamala Harris as the US’s female and mixed-heritage Vice President. It was at that moment that the weather, with a pique of dramatic flair, suddenly changed to glorious sunshine.

It was quite the moment. Perhaps it’s best described by Harris’ words herself following the election victory being declared – she may be the first, but she won’t be last.

And, from one queen to another, J-Lo took to the stage next. She belted out a medley that started with “This Land Is Your Land,” which was a bit odd for me as it was the first thing I learned to play on the banjo.

You might want to turn your speakers or headphones down.

As you can imagine, her version was better. She also spoke in Spanish to the millions of Latino Americans watching, which was quite something to behold at a President’s inauguration.

And then came the moment. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, and only slightly looked like he was forgetting the lines to repeat as they were read out. After a brief, weird pause (they were running ahead of schedule, and it’s not the swearing in that make him president – turning midday local time does, for some reason), he stood up to make his maiden speech as President.

And what a speech it was.


A TIME FOR HEALING… ONCE WE STOP DYING

The sun, fully embracing its role as a metaphor, showered Biden in wintery sunlight. The wind remained, which caught his thinning hair, and the sunshine made it look like some vanilla candyfloss was stuck to his head. But Biden had a message, and no amount of cranially-mounted confectionary would stop him.

The word unity was used in almost every sentence. The last four years have divided America in ways not seen in a generation. Biden set out his stall, and, indeed, his soul, to bringing America back together again. He called for healing, restoration and reunification, and vowed that America would face the coronavirus together.

He vowed to be a President for all Americans, and to end “The Uncivil War.”

He lamented those who used lies to sell their stories, and urged Americans to listen to the truth, rather than fabrications. It is clear that the “fake news” craze and conspiracy theories that have dogged democracy for the last few years will be challenged from the outset by the Biden administration.

He made a global pitch to America’s allies around the world, not least the UK, saying that the US would reestablish itself as a paragon of democracy and liberty. “America has been tested,” he said, “And we have come out stronger for it.” Perhaps the most stirring aspect of the speech from an international relations point of view was the brilliant turn of phrase, “We will lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

Give the speechwriter an Emmy – that is sterling work.

Biden was passionate, articulate and stirring. A true boon for American democracy, just when it needed it most. Yes, towards the end of the speech he tired a touch and some slurring of words appeared, but it is clear that this is a man who is fully intending to rally the “firebrand” label he received over many decades as a senator.

Whether or not he has the stamina we will have to wait and see. But, if his first executive actions are anything to go by (rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, reversing the withdrawal from the WHO, etc), he’s got the bit between his teeth.

For some reason Garth Brooks came out to sing Amazing Grace, which was odd. But then 22 year-old Amanda Gordon, the first ever National Youth Poet Laureate, delivered a ten minute poem about unity, and it was staggeringly good. Her mastery of English was spectacular and her message on point. Expect to see her name up in lights over the next few years.

Finally, to deliver the benediction, Rev. Dr. Sylvester Beaman delivered a prayer straight from a Gospel Church. “HALLELUJAH,” he cried.

After watching what looked like something close to sanity regaining the White House, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person around the world agreeing with him. Hallelujah, indeed.


A NEW DAWN

All of that being said, we cannot be too excited about Joe Biden.

He isn’t that same firebrand he once was, though his passion and heart still clearly remain. He takes over as a Democratic president, but his party is split into two camps much like the UK’s Labour Party – the moderates, like him, and the harder-left, like Bernie Sanders, Alexadria Ocasio-Cortez and the like.

Biden will be loathe to implement anything close to socialist policies as there is simply little stomach for it in the rural heartlands of the United States. He has vowed to be a president for all Americans and I believe he will try to stick to his word.

This isn’t to say he won’t implement his own ideologies, however. His vision for America depends on helping the worst off, and after four years of total free-market capitalism and the vast enrichment of the 1%, a division of wealth is needed across the country. What’s more, the Democrats now control the presidency, the senate, and congress, making legislation far easier than the gridlock that Obama faced during his two terms in office.

But, first things first, his in-tray. Tackling coronavirus once and for all, repairing the economy, battling climate change that has ravaged states like California, impeaching Trump. He’s got his hands full, and whether or not he will be fully up to the task remains to be seen.

There is no doubting, however, that Joe Biden Jr. is a good man. He is principled, compassionate and driven, an anathema to Trump’s divisive rhetoric. However he does, the principles behind his actions are in the right place.

The rest of the world wishes him well – he will need it.


I’ll leave you with one final image. As Biden was giving his speech yesterday, and as he became president, a lone marine sat by the grave of Biden’s deceased son, Beau. Biden has suffered huge loss and tragedy in his life, yet he remains true to the principles that guide him.

That alone makes him a far better president than Donald J Trump could ever hope to be.

VAX 2 THE MAX : Vaccination Rollout Going… Well?!


When I started Between the Lines, I vowed to make it as bipartisan as possible. I have my own political stance (lefty-leaning but not socialist, basically Third Way centrist dad), but I honestly wanted to do my best to be both critical of and complimentary to all parties across the spectrum.

For Labour, this has been relatively straightforward – I have complimented Keir Starmer’s dogged determination to bring the party back from the brink of madness, and I thoroughly criticised Labour’s inability to tackle the fact that it was full of anti-Jewish racists. Yin and yang, potato/potahtoe, easy peasy.

The Tories, on the other hand, have made finding balance rather more difficult.

From endless braying about the EU from absolute nutjobs in the ERG, to Jacob Rees-Mogg calling the victims of Grenfell thick, to Theresa May’s soulless “Brexit means Brexit” gibberish creating a vacuum at the heart of government, to Johnson illegally proroguing parliament, to the trip to Barnard Castle, to Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, to…

I mean, the list goes on. And on. And on.

And I’m not against conservatism. When I was younger, I even voted conservative (admittedly mostly because of background, demographic, family etc). But I am distinctly against uselessness, profoundly against snobbery, and deeply, deeply against corruption. Unfortunately, over the last few years, successive Tory governments have been guilty of at least one of these malaises, and usually all of them.

BUT.

FINALLY.

Something has changed. Whether or not they meant it, I’m not entirely sure. But at long, long, looooooooooong last, I have something to write about that is complimentary of the Tories.

The mass rollout of the coronavirus vaccine is going extremely well. Better than the government itself predicted. And credit should absolutely be given where it’s due.

And so, at long last, an article that is complimentary of the Tories.

Sort of.


NADHIM Z, KNOWING YOU, ZAHAAAA… WI.

Sorry to ruin your dreams for the next fortnight.

Anyway, given the absolute chaos of the last twelve months, when the vaccine was announced I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one to think, “That’s great, but it’ll just be yet another thing for Joris Bohnson and Cock Hattman to screw up.”

I don’t feel guilty about it. The government’s overall handling of the coronavirus crisis has been abysmal – waiting too late to instigate lockdowns, allowing foreigners to enter the country without tests for a year, failing to fully clarify rules that affect everyone in the country… It’s been rough.

I do, of course, have huge sympathy. No government wants to be in charge during a once-in-a-generation event like a global pandemic. We’re not the only ones to have suffered, either. European countries have been ravaged like crazy, and the less said about the United States, the better.

But the brazen politicking of the pandemic has been toe-curlingly infuriating. Watching opposition MPs make salient points about schools returning, PPE provisions and other important issues only to be rebuffed by Johnson spouting out some incomprehensible shite about being unpatriotic makes me want to set myself on fire.

But there is no other way around it – the vaccination rollout has been excellent. It was announced at the weekend that 4x as many people are being vaccinated compared to becoming infected, and around 140 vaccines were taking place every minute.

That is an astonishing piece of logistics. Which is ironic, because if Scottish fishermen and the lorry park formerly known as Kent are anything to go by, this government seems to have the logistical nous of a goat trying to organise its tax return. Brexit was always going to have “teething problems,” as they’ve been referred, but potentially hundreds of independent businesses closing down is probably better-described as a gum disease.

We shall see.

But anyway, credit must go to Nadhim Zahawi, the former Education Minister who was put in charge of the vaccination rollout. He was probably appointed to be a scapegoat “in case” it all went wrong, but also possibly because if Hatt Mancock has anything else to worry about he will literally melt. I have to say that I never thought much of Zahawi, but he is clearly doing a relatively good job.

Because he’s letting NHS Trusts handle most of it. Which they could also have done from the start of the pandemic, had Johnson’s dick-swinging contest not got in the way.

SORRY. Sorry. Positive. We’re being positive in this article.

It feels weird.

Either way, we now have a light at the end of the tunnel. So what next?


HOLD… HOLD…

I know. I am desperate for things to go back to “normal.”

I want to see my girlfriend. I want to go back to the pub. I want to go for a walk and not be constantly worrying about inhaling other peoples’ horrible, disease-ridden breath. I want to go to gigs and festivals. I want to go into the city. I even want to go clubbing, and I hate clubbing.

But we’re not there yet. The infection and death rates are absolutely catastrophic after Christmas, with yesterday’s tally of over 1,600 the highest since the start of the pandemic.

But we are so close. This week, over 70s will start being asked to receive the vaccine. Roughly one in ten of those aged 75+ who catch coronavirus will die, whereas almost no-one under the age of 50 will. Yes, there are exceptions – long covid is horrific, and those with underlying health conditions are at risk – but once the elderly are vaccinated, the death rates will start to plummet.

That alone is still not quite enough, however. If the virus spreads through younger people at a high rate, then it could mutate again. If this happens, it could mean that the vaccines we have produced so far are rendered less effective, and we go back to not-quite square one, but square two or three.

So even when death rates plummet, even when no-one seems to be dying from COVID-19 anymore, we will still need to be wary. Masks will continue to be a part of our lives, as will social distancing.

But the first doors will start to open. High streets will start to have people in them again.

We might even be able to sit in a pub garden, if we can somehow manage to book a table.

We’re still in it for a good while yet. But this summer is going to be an absolute banger, mark my words. And, better yet, if the aftermath of the Spanish flu of 1918 is anything to go by, we’re going to have one hell of a decade.

No more quarantinis. All of the margaritas.

FREE SCHOOL STEALS : Inadequate Food Packages and Tory Cronyism


I’m just as shocked as you are. Turns out that this government’s generosity does have a limit after all!

But this does, of course, come as something of a major surprise, given how “in touch with the common man” our government is. I mean, just take a look at their London Mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, finding an innovative, practical and compassionate solution to the homelessness problem based on his own experience:

Of course! Why didn’t anyone else think of that?! Now I can rest easy, knowing that I shouldn’t bother donating to charities that provide safe accommodation, medical and psychological care and paid work for the homeless. I’ll just bung ’em 20p, and after 250,000 people have done the same thing they can buy themselves a luxury loft conversion in Hackney Wick.

For Christ’s sake.

Now look, it’s worth noting at this point that the government is not directly responsible for the paltry food packages that have been sent out. This responsibility lies at the feet of the company responsible for sourcing and distributing the food, Chartwells. But we’ll dive into why this government, not so much a cabinet of all the talents so much as an IKEA cabinet with far too many screws missing, still deserves the blame for yet another fiasco.

And yes, it’s our old friend cronyism once again.


FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD PARCELS

It’s a pretty sad indictment of where we are as a country that any of our citizens rely on food banks and food parcels to survive, but that’s where we are.

And by the way, if you’re one of those people who says “Oh, well if we hand them food vouchers, then those deadbeat parents will probably spend it all on the marry-jü-ahnah and crack cocaine,” then you can get in the sea. I’m not even going to deny that yes, this probably has happened in some cases and will continue to happen, and it’s desperately sad for those children who are mistreated this way.

But if you are really one of those people who believes that one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel then I pray that you find some sort of joy in your miserable little life.

Because even this bunch of particularly free-market Tories concede that ensuring children aren’t sodding malnourished is a human right. Which is why the free school meals system existed in the first place – during term time, kids that couldn’t bring in food from home were given access to food provided by the state. And if you’re asking, “What kind of terrible parents can’t even afford to feed their kids?”, I would just like to remind you of something.

The average salary in the UK is £35,000. The average. This means that there is a significant number of people earning far, far less than this, especially as salaries of over £200,000 distort the average to be even higher. When you take into consideration that living in major cities is extremely expensive, none of us are taught about proper nutrition (unless you have the luxury of having the time and money to read about and buy healthy produce), and saving money is almost impossible when you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, it’s no wonder that so many kids have to be fed by the state.

So maybe don’t blame the parents from your ivory towers. The fact that you’re able to choose what you have for dinner is a luxury that millions of people in this country, the 5th richest in the world, don’t have.

Where were we? Sorry, today’s post is quite a rambling one. I get very, very angry about this. Can you tell?

How I spend my days off.

Ah yes, free school meals. You’ll probably remember the furore last year when the government said it wouldn’t extend the programme outside of term time, despite, y’know, the pandemic causing untold economic misery on those worst off.

Enter Manchester United and England winger-cum-striker, Marcus Rashford.

I will admit that I am now such a cynical, miserable bastard myself that when I heard about the campaign, I immediately thought, “PR stunt.” But no matter how savvy the team around him, it’s clear that this is Rashford’s personal mission. His MBE is well-deserved, although there is more than a hint of irony in the fact that the Queen gave him an award for combatting her own government’s ineptitude/callousness.

I wonder what Queenie makes of Boris Johnson. She’s probably used to dealing with bounding, furry cretins having had the corgis for so long. Feed him a biscuit and he’ll usually stop humping.

So anyway, Marcus Rashford campaigned that the free school meals delivered in term time be extended to the holidays, too, and won. Hurrah, children won’t go hungry.

Now, supposedly 75% of schools use a voucher system, where parents are given £30 to go and spend in a supermarket, choosing things themselves, and catering to their childrens’ specific needs. But 25% are sent food parcels, courtesy of Chartwells, a private company that the government have outsourced to deliver them.

Let’s have a look at a £30 supermarket shop vs what Chartwells have delivered:

Beans, cheese, carrots, potatos, Soreen, bread, apples, one tomato, and three Frubes. That, my friends, is what I call a snack.

And it’s meant to last for DAYS.

As Green Party MP for Brighton Caroline Lucas has stated here, Chartwells has apologised and is now investigating. Boris Johnson has called the parcels a disgrace, and the government’s official recommendation has now switched in favour of food vouchers.


MATES’ RATES

Chartwells have said that the issue was with rapid scalability, and there is obviously truth in that. While they are now the UK’s largest distributor of school meals, they have to hugely increase their output in a short amount of time.

But then that begs the question, why didn’t they say that they might struggle? Why were they only able to put £5.22’s worth of food into the package when their budget was £30? Why weren’t more firms outsourced to, ensuring above all else that children’s nutrition was the top priority?

Well, I have a reason. Ten thousand, actually. Paul Walsh, outgoing chairman of Compass Group, which owns Chartwell, is a Tory party donor, having given £10,000 to them.

Good Lord. Surely I can’t be saying that this government hands out contracts, paid for by taxpayers’ money, to friends and donors without even allowing competitors to get a look in? Surely that would be an egregious way to use the money that we pay the government to, oh, I don’t know, reinvest in the country and look after our most vulnerable citizens?

Sigh.

Look, according to a “local source” that used to work for a government minister in the 1970s, this happens all the time. And I get that you have trusted suppliers, businesses you have a good rapport with, and so on.

But handing out billions of pounds of our money to Tory donors, appointing peerages to allies and sycophants, and bypassing the Civil Service in favour of spending yet more hundreds of millions of pounds on private management consultants is almost criminal. It’s certainly desperately immoral.

The Tories are supposed to be champions of the free market, allowing competition and innovation to drive rapid growth. How is that supposed to happen when they’re the ones doling out lucrative contracts to people purely by virtue of the fact that they’ve shot grouse together?

And the people who suffer are the consumers. Look at those food parcels. £5.22’s worth of food instead of £30 – a considerable amount of the missing £24.78 presumably going straight into Chartwells’ coffers. Look at the frontline NHS staff forced to wear binbags because their PPE, made by companies that previously made plastic cups, isn’t up to code. This cronyism not only undermines trust in the government, but means that the quality of goods suffers, too. And it’s always those who need the most help who end up getting shafted.

It’s against almost any political, economic and moral code that I can think of.

And one final thought, just a reminder that Boris feels poor.

These people won an 80-seat majority.

I’m moving to the Cayman Islands. At least they’re open about stealing taxes.

#BLOCKED : Trump’s Social Media Suspension and Free Speech


And so, on Friday night, the most prolific Twitter account of all US Presidents, living or dead, (presumably) was permanently shut down.

Donald J Trump, outgoing President of the United States, was no longer allowed to tweet from both his personal Twitter account nor the official POTUS account. But that’s not all – Instagram, Snapchat and Twitch joined suit, Facebook had already suspended his account until after Joe Biden’s inauguration, and Parler, the “free speech” app, was removed from Apple and Google’s app stores.

Trump’s endless Twitter tirades were, at long last, silent.

“Hurrah!”, you might think. “For too long have we been forced to listen to incoherent ramblings of a Grade-A nutsack. Now, finally, his nonsense brought to an end. Hurray to the end of stupidity!”

And yes, there are a few obvious upsides. Since he incited mob violence at the Capitol building last week, Trump showed next to no contrition on Twitter, using it instead to praise his followers and tell them “We love you.” Now that he has lost access to his nearly 90m followers, it will be far harder for him to incite disruption or even more violence during the final days of his tenure.

This is, quite obviously, a good thing.

But there is far more to this story than simply “tangerine madman gets silenced.” There has been a debate for quite some time about exactly how Twitter and Facebook should be classified, regulated, and kept in check. There is a profoundly grey area between platform and publisher that Facebook and Twitter have been deliberately muddying in the name of profit for quite some time.

A platform takes no responsibility for the content posted on it, as it is the user’s responsibility to ensure that it is within the platform’s community guidelines. A publisher, on the other hand, has to take responsibility itself for the content posted upon it due to regulation, such as around hate speech.

Twitter and Facebook have both deemed themselves to be platforms. As such, Trump’s huge following and demand for attention meant serious money for the two tech colossi through advertising revenue. While they might not have liked what he said, it meant megabucks for them, so they let him crack on, no questions asked.

Trump’s actions over the course of the 2020 election campaign and its aftermath, however, took things to a new level. He has compacted the grey area into a more defined line – not least because whatever line now exists, Trump not only crossed it, but then took a dump on it for good measure then blamed it on Antifa.

An uneasy truce had been balanced between politics and social media for the last few years. We have seen incredibly-rapid changes in the relationship between the people and politics, and social media has been the primary catalyst for it. However, we are now starting to understand the power of social media, and the companies who wield it.

This may well be the end of the first age of digital democracy. It’s worth exploring where we go from here.


IF YOU CAN’T STAND THE TWEET…

It’s very easy to be critical of social media. God knows I have. Trolls. Racists. Lunatic fringe parties getting undue attention. It’s easy to write the whole thing off as a colossal shitshow that should just be shut down.

But to do so would be to forget some of the positive things that social media has done. While it’s easy to look at Trump’s “patriots” going postal in Washington and think, “This wouldn’t have happened without Twitter,” nor would the Black Lives Matter movement. Nor would the #MeToo movement. Or Captain Sir Tom Moore’s NHS fundraiser. The list goes on.

Social media’s deepest weakness is also its greatest strength – it gives a voice to everyone. And, in a political sense, this cannot be seen as anything other than a good thing.

Democracy only works when every person in a country can express their opinion through voting. By extension, this requires freedom of thought and freedom of speech to engage with opinions constructively. I profoundly disagree with the idea of privatising the NHS, for example, yet there are compelling arguments to be made in favour of it, such as quality of care or better resource management (or, at least, hypothetically). These arguments deserve just as much discussion as my own.

But here is where we start to see the issues. The democratic ideal of creating policy through scrutiny, debate and compromise only works when we are able to change our minds, or at least see the good in opposing arguments. Unfortunately, we currently seem to live in a world where people are more willing to hunker down with their own side than even contemplate an opponent’s point of view, even if their team has such extreme factions that they might even be overtly racist (see antisemitic Corbynistas on the far left, anti-Islamic or anti-BLM Trumpers on the far right).

How have we got here? A million different reasons. A vast expanse in the wealth gap between rich and poor. A deliberately divisive and misleading media. Geolocational viewpoints that are entirely at odds with one another (i.e. liberal, Labour-voting major cities versus more conservative rural constituencies). A First-Past-The-Post voting system that disenfranchises millions of people at every election. There’s a myriad of explanations as to why the country feels so divided – there is a pervasive underlying narrative of “Us” vs “Them.”

Social media has merely exacerbated the pre-existing malaise that was afflicting us. Hard right and hard left fringes have always existed, but now they have a means of finding other, like-minded people, rather than being confined to the backs of pubs or weird online message boards.

However, whether you like it or not, the fact that they exist is a good thing.

Why? Because freedom of speech and freedom of thought are vital to the workings of democracy. Opposing viewpoints are needed to keep the mainstream ones in check. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says in his frankly incredible video below, our democracy is like a sword – the more you temper it, the stronger it becomes.

Just watch. Seriously, just watch. Sword analogy at 5.12.

We need to have opposing viewpoints that challenge our own to ensure that our own views remain appropriate, considered and relevant. If we become lazy and fail to strengthen our own arguments, other, more insidious ones can take hold.

But in order for this to happen, the opposing views must be heard. Really, really listened to, and treated with respect, no matter how daft or insulting they are. You don’t have to respect the arguments themselves, but the person’s right to make them. Because the only way to defeat them is to have a better argument and to change the minds of those championing them.

If you ignore the arguments of someone who disagrees with you, those arguments will simply fester like a bad wound, getting more and more painful until finally – POP – the boil bursts, and it’s too late. Frustrated at not being taken seriously, opponents will go to further and further lengths to be heard. This includes disinformation and conspiracy theories like QAnon – there isn’t a morsel of reality in anything they say, but to those who have been ignored, they welcome them to the fold like long-lost family.

That is where we are with Trump. That is where we are with Brexit. That is where we are as a society. Fringe voices are summarily dismissed out-of-hand, so they simply double-down until they sound insane, but are still more representative to those that follow them than the beliefs of the status quo.

Done right, social media gives voice to those who are owed it. But those of us in the status quo are still refusing to listen.

So what does Trump’s suspension mean?


FREEDOM OF IMPEACH

For all that I’ve just said, there was little else that Twitter or Facebook could do about Trump other than suspend him. Five people are dead due to the events that unfolded at his command. He’s reportedly unstable, at odds with reality, and liable to do something profoundly dangerous (or, at least, profoundly stupid).

A man with that much power should not have a platform for inciting violence or for damaging democracy.

It’s also understandable that Trump and his supporters are apoplectic about it. Along with the removal of Parler, they feel as though their freedom of speech is being curtailed.

And they have a point, too. I can’t believe I’m agreeing with something Donald Trump Junior posted, but:

Leave it to Trump JuJu to make a relatively profound point but still tailend it with something eye-wateringly stupid. “Mao would be proud.” Do sod off.

Yes, still playing with the design software.

The decision to suspend Trump was made by Twitter itself and its CEO Jack Dorsey. At its core, it’s an editorial decision. Yes, an editorial decision to prevent loss of human life, attacks on democracy and so on, but still an editorial one.

So why aren’t other hate-speech spouters being suspended? Why is it one rule for Trump and not for others?

Put simply – because there is no regulation.

Dorsey’s Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook have long argued that they are merely platforms. They are private tech companies that have their own policies for content, which means that they cannot be treated in the same way as traditional media such as TV or newspaper journalism.

But, now that Trump has crossed the Rubicon, it’s clear that that’s not the case. The second they silenced him, they demonstrated the influence that they wield.

These two companies have more power, financially and ideologically, than the world’s great superpowers. And yet they are not elected, have no accountability to the people, and have so far even managed to evade regulation.

This is the crux of the matter, and what happens next. Social media, in the current, polarised political climate, must be regulated.

Yes, we must learn to listen. We, as a society, have a responsibility for our own democracy that doesn’t begin and end on Twitter. In fact, for all the power that it wields with influencing government decisions and news headlines, only around 22% of US and UK citizens use it. Finding an end to polarised politics doesn’t just lie with sorting out social media.

But the fact of the matter is that it makes the problem so much worse.


REGULATION STATION

So, what to do?

Over the course of the US Presidential Election, Twitter took the first steps. By adding fact-checking addendums to Trump and his cohort’s tweets, they showed some signs of understanding how dangerous the swirling cauldron of disinformation has become.

Just for balance, here’s my friend Trump Jr again demonstrating the Twitter notice:

And it’s here that I believe the tides will turn. Once factual accuracy becomes a mainstay of social media, and once the extreme fringes have fewer places to turn, the more that they will engage with reality. It’s those defending the status quo who have to listen more, but their opponents will be armed with better arguments if they aren’t derived from some spiralling, online bollocks about Barack Obama being King of the Paedos.

Social media companies must start taking responsibility for the content that’s published on their sites. And, indeed, so should traditional media, too. I am desperately keen to emphasise that I do not remotely believe in curtailing free speech and I believe more than most that arguments from all fringes should be heard. But those that are based on lies or falsehoods should be flagged as such.

To all those who complain about being “silenced”, I would give a platform. But every time the platform is given, they must be asked, “Where is your evidence?” This question must be posed every time they speak.

Every. Single. Time.

Because if we can get to a point where political discourse is about interpretation of facts again, where the debate is held sanely and respectfully, and we can learn to trust those we disagree with to act in good faith, we can start to claw our democracy back from the brink.

Because right now, make no mistake – both for our friends across the pond and for us right here at home, democracy is looking shakier than ever before.

CAPITOL PUNISHMENT : Trump Supporters Ransack Capitol Building


NB – As you might have noticed from the cover image, I was given some new design software for Christmas. I will be trialling it in this post.

Apologies in advance.


Well, folks. We made it. We got to 2021.

We dragged our way through what was certainly the strangest year of my lifetime, and probably most other people’s, too. And, while the coronavirus has mutated, is running rampant, and we find ourselves in lockdown once again, we can at least take comfort from the fact that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The vaccines, those glorious little vials of diluted evil, are our ticket out of this nightmare. And we Brits are the lucky ones – we have the most easily-produced and easily-distributed vaccine being made on our very own shores. While we’re not out of the woods yet, the end is in sight.

And so, as we sat with our families, significant others, or just on our own as the clock struck midnight last week, we had reasons to be cheerful, at long last.

2021 might, we thought, just might be the year where we can get everything back to normal, at long last.

What’s that? Trump’s incited a riot and his supporters have broken through police barriers to storm the Capitol building? Four people are dead? Trump’s been blocked on Twitter and Facebook and has been described as being, “Out of his mind?”

Wait, does he still have access to the nuclear codes?! Oh Christ. I thought a US Civil War was on the 2020 apocalypse bingo card, not 2021…

For God’s sake. Here we go again.


ORANGE GORILLA-WARFARE

Yesterday already had huge potential for unrest. The US Congress was debating the much-contested (by Trump) Presidential election result, with a view to ratifying Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President-elect and Vice President-elect. Once confirmed, there was no going back – no more legal challenges, no more denial, just acceptance. If confirmed by Congress, Biden would be inaugurated as President on the 20th of January.

And, to make the process that little bit smoother in his typical, societially-consciencious way, Trump held a massive rally in Washington DC yesterday morning. He and his lackeys spat venom at the Democrats, insisting, despite everything, that he had won the election by a landslide.

And it’s worth remembering at this point just where Trump has got to in the past few weeks. He has:

  • Filed 62 lawsuits against various states claiming that the election was fradulent, losing 61 of them (and winning a mere handful of votes in the successful one);
  • Given the Democrats control of the Senate by losing two seats in Georgia (despite calling the state’s top election official, Republican Brad Raffensperger, and asking him to illegally find him votes);
  • And made significant firings in the civil service, replacing top officials within the Pentagon and other crucial defense positions with his own loyalist puppets.

And so it was little surprise that yesterday’s rally was touted as being a final opportunity to “Stop the Steal.” Trump even said it himself.

And so it was. Trump whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

And Rudy Giuliani openly called for violence. No, really.

And so, perhaps just enjoying the last moments of his boob-ermensch Presidency, or perhaps truly wishing for civil unrest to overturn the election, Trump paved the way for what happened next.

If you can spare a few minutes to watch this astonishing report, I would highly recommend it:

Inspired by Trump’s words, thousands of furious protestors stormed the Capitol building. The building itself was ransacked, with windows smashed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s sign being removed from the door and destroyed, and all politicians and civil servants evacuated.

Republicans and Trump loyalists took to Twitter to beg the protestors to stop, to no avail. Trump himself asked, begrudgingly, for peace…

But that had about as much impact as a Nerf gun fired at a concrete bunker.

Rumours spread that the National Guard refused to arrive to disperse the crowd – the Head of the Guard had recently been replaced by a Trump puppet. Eventually, arrive they did, supposedly under orders from Mike Pence, Trump’s Vice President, rather than Trump himself.

Commendably, once the protestors had dispersed, Congress gathered again later in the day and Joe Biden was confirmed as US President-elect. But the damage was already done. Scenes of carnage at the heart of US democracy were viewed across the world by allies and foes alike.

A dark day for Western democracy, indeed.

I hesitate to use a tweet from Piers Morgan, but given his nose was once so far up Donald Trump’s nethers that he could wear him as a hat, it’s perhaps fitting to use this as the defining image of the chaos:


YOU KNOW WHEN YOU’VE BEEN TANGO’ED

The depressing thing about all of this is that we saw it coming from a mile away. Being a lefty-liberal snowflake who commits the cardinal sin of listening to facts and data rather than opinions, I was genuinely surprised by how restrained Trump’s presidency has been.

Yes, I consider inciting racial hatred, suggesting bleach injections and riding roughshod over the American consitution, as he has done consistently for the last four years, to be restrained. Because yesterday the true face of Trumpism finally came out, and it could have been like that from the start. It took until the very last minute for it to emerge, but emerge it did, like a particularly angry spot finally popping on a teenager’s face.

Trump is quite clearly an underdeveloped, sociopathic narcissist. He, or at least his political advisors, cleverly positioned him as the champion of the people, despite being the son of a billionaire, albeit an emotionally-abused one. He has no concept of decency, higher power or responsibility – the only person Trump cares about is Trump.

So it’s little wonder that, rather than allow the peaceful transition of power like nigh-on every President that came before him, he instead chose to denigrate one of the most respected and authoritative positions in the world.

Trump knew no other way to behave, as he’s simply not been told “No” enough times in his life. This will be Trump’s legacy and his lasting effect on American discourse.

A sad, greasy, orange stain on the history of one of the world’s superpowers.

And what of the rioters? What of those who desecrated one of the altars of democracy?

Strangely enough, I feel more pity than anger. Yes, of course there is no place whatsoever for the kind of actions that they took. There is no excusing the damage done to both the physical manifestation of democracy and to the concept of it itself.

But when you watch the video above and you listen to these people, they aren’t anarchists. They aren’t trying to dismantle the processes of government for shits and giggles. They consider themselves to be freedom fighters, rebelling against a system that has economically left them behind and culturally left them alienated.

Trump and his merry band of fascist populists tapped into that anger. So, too, have conspiracy sites like QAnon, Flat-Earth Theorists or even Margaret From Down The Road. It is almost impossible to critically assess a theory when it aligns into your own world-experiences – “I feel abandoned, and these powerful people are telling me it’s the fault of these other powerful people.” It’s an easy pill to swallow.

So while I have no sympathy for the vandalism and violence, I have plenty for their motives. It is Biden’s unenviable task to reach out to these people and convert them, as they are soon to be abandoned by the Republicans, too. Disgusted with Trump’s behaviour, the GOP’s Faustian Pact with Trump is soon to be coming to an end, with rumours abound that Mike Pence might remove Trump from office sooner rather than later via the 25th amendment.

While a smattering of Trump loyalists might stay with him to the last, the fact that Mitch McConnell, a key figure in the Trump administration, proclaimed yesterday that the election results should stand before the riot even started, shows that it seems as though most Republicans are ready to finally wash their hands of him.

Trump’s time is up. What his followers do next, however, is anyone’s guess.