Twenty books from 2020

When the pandemic started, I dug out a number of plague stories to read – Camus, Defoe, Marquez, the Adam Mars-Jones short story about the Queen getting rabies, and studies of the Spanish Flu epidemic. I didn’t read any of them – I wasn’t in the mood. So instead here are twenty books I did read that seem worth noting. They are not the only books I read in the year – there must be at least a couple of dozen others I read for work alone. These are not in any order, other than chronological order of reading.

  1. Patrick White The Living and the Dead. Until I went back through my pandemic diary I had forgotten I read this earlier in the year. In my teenage years I remember there were a few dog-eared copies of Voss in the school library, but I never read it – I was more interested in Simenon. This is a family in decline in the 1930s. There’s something of Anthony Powell’s Dance series about it, but it’s darker.
  2. Sara Blaedel is a Danish crime fiction author and we spend – spent, before the pandemic – a fair amount of time in Copenhagen for family reasons. Her Louise Rick series is ideal distraction reading. This year I read several, so let’s go with The Midnight Witness, a murder story set in Copenhagen itself.
  3. The Swedish journalist and crime fiction writer, the late Stieg Larsson, was the source of the material for the next book, which is based partly on his files on the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme: The Man who Played with Fire, by Jan Stocklassa. It’s a thorough piece of investigative journalism, irritating in its development in places, but an important assessment of the failures of the investigations and the right-wing networks that may have been involved.
  4. The Alanbrooke diaries. Lord Alan Brooke was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff for much of the Second World War. This is a fascinating read on the thoroughness of the planning for the defence of the UK, the preparation for D-Day, and the interaction between Churchill and his military chiefs. Anyone who thinks Johnson is another Churchill should read this and think about Churchill’s preparation for speeches and decisions.
  5. Derek Raymond’s The Crust on their Uppers (written when he was known as Robin Cook – not the late Labour politician). Raymond’s Factory series is gripping and doesn’t hide the realities of violence and murder. This is a much earlier thriller set in a 1960s milieu of upper class decadence and criminal association.
  6. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach had sat on the bookshelf for a while. It was engaging and cleverly-imagined, though I thought there should have been some development of both male and female characters in the years following the separation.
  7. Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains has also sat on the bookshelf for years. In the early days of lockdown I wanted to ensure a real break between the week and the weekend and without football I turned to shorter novels for a Sunday read, like this and Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Both deal with relatively unknown – to us in the UK – periods in European history – the first, Czechoslovakia’s occupation by the Nazis, and the second, West Germany under threat from the Red Army Faction. The first has many unlikeable characters but contains a tragedy: the latter, I enjoyed more for its sense of a society under threat.
  8. The Mirror and the Light. This was the big one. I found I couldn’t read it in one go as I had the previous two volumes – and Mantel herself has said it is a more difficult read for the reader. I kept seeing Brexit parallels throughout – Henry VIII as a manic Johnson – and the politics of the Kingdom, relations with the North and the Scots, played a significant role. Cromwell’s last days were very effectively conjured.
  9. Curtis Sittenfield’s Rodham was a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end: the story of what Hillary Rodham Clinton’s life would have been like if she hadn’t married Bill. She created plausible futures for both Hillary and Bill after their break-up, and didn’t duck challenges. One of my favourite books of 2020.
  10. We have been to Sicily a couple of times in 2018 and 2019 with Sicily Unlimited and were due to go again on the Montalbano Unlimited tour in 2020 which was of course cancelled by Covid. I am late to the Montalbano novels of Camilleri but I started with the first three and I prefer them to what I have seen of the TV series. Camilleri uses dialogue substantially to shape plot development and character and has said he learned a lot from the way in which Simenon’s Maigret novels were torn part for TV reconstruction on Italy’s public service broadcaster, RAI. The Shape of Water introduces Montalbano and the fictional town of Vigata (we have visited its real-life equivalent), as well as the cuisine, culture and politics of Sicily.
  11. I loved Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes. I spent a lot of time in Scotland in the 1980s for work and personal reasons and this brought back much of that milieu and its culture and distinctive developing politics as it criss-crosses time periods from the 80s to the present. It’s not all set in Scotland, but Scotland – and radical politics, feminism and popular culture north and south of the border – is its centre.
  12. Fintan O’Toole has been one of the most acute observers of the post-Brexit UK, writing from an Irish internationalist perspective. Heroic Failure is full of sharp observations drawn from both political and cultural analysis on how we got to our current crisis and why.
  13. Eimear McBride is an extraordinary writer. I much preferred The Lesser Bohemians to her previous novel, although that itself still sticks in my memory two years after reading it. Bohemians is rich, evocative, challenging and contains one of the most remarkable 70 pages of a single character’s story you are ever likely to read.
  14. Leonardo Sciascia was not only a novelist and short story writer but also a Sicilian politician who wrote devastatingly about Italy and Sicily’s history, political corruption, criminality and social unease. I have read a lot of Sciascia in the last few years and we visited Racalmuto, his home town, in 2019. He wrote a scathing account of the murder of the Italian Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro in the 1970s. The Wine-Dark Sea is a volume of Sciascia short stories which is a good introduction to his writing.
  15. I haven’t read any Martin Amis for probably thirty years, but I wanted to read Inside Story largely on because of his exploration of his friendship with Christopher Hitchens, including in his last years (and also with Saul Bellow). It’s not really a novel, though it has novelistic aspects and fictional elements. I’d call it a meditation – it explores themes of life, death, physical decline, and love.
  16. I found Don Delillo’s The Silence a bit thin – it’s a spare, dystopian account of what happens to a small elite group when the electronic systems on which we rely start to fail. I couldn’t really engage with this, despite the contemporary themes and despite having enjoyed much of Delillo’s previous writing.
  17. Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem is an extraordinary piece of dystopian science fiction written by a Chinese writer who actually gets the science of a lot of key issues in physics. It’s the first volume of a trilogy. I enjoyed it not only for the concept itself but also for the insights it gives to Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution and after.
  18. Amongst other things, Hani Kunzru tackles the strategies of the alt-right in Red Pill. The term comes to us of course from the film Matrix but it has been adopted by the alt-right as a description of the process by which people come to shed their supposed delusions and turn to the alt-right world view (I discuss this a little in Facebook, the Media and Democracy). Cleverly done, the novel explores the breakdown of a writer’s sanity.
  19. Jock Colville’s The Fringes of Power cover his years working as Private Secretary to Churchill. They contain a revealing paragraph about Churchill’s conception of the Empire, based on the emotional solidarity of its white inhabitants, which illuminates the Churchillism of the Brexit-backing right today, and on which I have written in a forthcoming book.
  20. I ended the year reading thrillers. There’s always a new Michael Connelly to read around Christmas-time. I read The Law of Innocence in a day. Gripping escapism in itself, as an aside, it is the first novel I read last year that mentions Coronavirus.

We need an Office of Government Ethics if the Nolan Principles are to be revitalised.

The Article published this from me at the end of November. The deadline for the CPSL consultation has been extended to 29 January 2021.

The Committee for Standards in Public Life (CPSL) has an open consultation on the future of standards regulation in the UK. Recently the chair of the committee, Lord Evans, made a wide-ranging speech drawing attention to a series of worrying developments, from the process-free Coronavirus procurements to the delays in publishing the report into the conduct of the Home Secretary, asking whether we are in a post-Nolan age. The resignation of the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on standards, Sir Alex Allan, last week, following the Prime Minister’s failure to adopt his recommendation in respect of the Home Secretary is now set to be considered by the CPSL as part of its review.

The Nolan framework has been with us for twenty-five years. It is right that it should be reviewed. It is right that we should recognise where the principles still carry weight, informing the actions of public servants across the UK. But it is time to ensure that the Nolan machinery is strengthened, particularly when it comes to ethics in government.

It is unprecedented to have as Prime Minister someone who has been reprimanded by both the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) and the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner. In July 2018, within a week of resigning as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson signed a contract with the Daily Telegraph to write a weekly column. He did not apply to ACOBA for permission until two weeks after signing the contract. The Chair of ACOBA, Baroness Browning, wrote to Johnson on 8 August, saying: ‘The committee considers it unacceptable that you signed a contract with The Telegraph and your appointment was announced before you had sought and obtained advice from the Committee, as was incumbent upon you on leaving office under the Government’s Business Appointment Rules’. ACOBA refused to grant Johnson retrospective permission. 

In December 2018 Johnson was told by the Commons Standards Committee to apologise for his ‘over‐casual’ failure to declare £52,000 worth of expenses in an incident which the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards said was ‘a lack of attention to House requirements, rather than inadvertent error’.

Fast forward to 2020, and Prime Minister Johnson last week urged Conservative backbenchers to ‘form a square around the Prittster’ as he rejected the advice of Sir Alex. The Prime Minister doesn’t respect rules or standards, for himself or for others in his Cabinet. The current system isn’t working. If respect and trust in government is to be restored, we need a new standards infrastructure.

First, there needs to be an Office of Government Ethics (OGE), which reports to Parliament rather than operating as an Advisory body sponsored by the Cabinet Office, which is currently the position with ACOBA. 

Second, the OGE needs to be properly staffed and resourced. It should take over the functions of ACOBA and the Prime Minister’s Independent Adviser on the Ministerial Code. It should have the power to investigate complaints against ministers, the Prime Minister, senior civil servants, and special advisers. Its conclusions should be made public. The Ministerial Code, Civil Service Code and Special Advisers’ Code should make it clear that if a finding of a serious breach of the Code is made by the OGE, then the Minister or official would be expected to resign. 

Third, legislation should specify that certain breaches of the Code, such as the failure to take advice on appointments, should be regarded as an offence liable on conviction for a substantial fine under the Criminal Justice Act.

Fourth, there should be greater clarity around the question of misleading Parliament, particularly when it comes to commenting on the verdict of independent bodies such as the National Audit Office.

Currently there are no real sanctions available to ACOBA other than the threat of adverse publicity. The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee called it ‘toothless’ in a report in 2017 and argued for it to be set up on a statutory basis. 

The Ministerial Codes for the devolved administrations require departing ministers to comply with ACOBA’s rules. The First Ministers of Scotland and Wales have separately appointed independent advisers on their ministerial codes. Discussions should be taken forward with the devolved administrations as to whether they would be prepared to share sovereignty around a single Office of Government Ethics for the whole of the UK. There might be advantages to them in doing so, both in cost and reputational terms. 

Informality has had its day. An Office of Government Ethics, set up on a statutory basis, with wide investigatory powers and legal sanctions for non-compliance, would be a powerful indication that twenty-five years after Nolan, standards in public life are being firmly asserted. 

Leighton Andrews is Professor of Public Leadership at Cardiff Business School and a former Welsh Government Minister.

The Welsh response to Covid-19 shows the benefits of devolution

I wrote this last month for The Article

No Welsh Government since the creation of the then National Assembly for Wales in 1999 has had to cope with the scale of a challenge like Covid-19. Paradoxically, no other issue has established the realities of devolution more clearly in the public mind, either in Wales or the UK as a whole. The announcement today (Monday) of a 17-day firebreak lasting from 6.00pm Friday until 9 November hardly came as a shock. The Welsh Government has been consulting with its social partners over recent days and clear indications were given to the public that a ‘firebreak’ lockdown was imminent. Organisations as disparate as the CBI and the teaching unions have welcomed the degree of engagement over the nature of the lockdown.

What a contrast this shows with the stand-off between the Johnson government and local politicians elsewhere in England, particularly in the North-West. 

Today’s announcement has some similarities with the full lockdown in March, in that

  • We will have to stay at home except for very limited reasons, such as exercise
  • We must work from home where they can
  • We cannot meet other people from outside our household either indoors or outdoors
  • Non-essential shops will shut. Eating places and pubs will close except for delivery or takeaways
  • Hotels, hairdressers and beauticians will have to shut  

However, primary school children and those in years 7 and 8 in secondary will return to school after the half-term break and nurseries will stay open. Adults who live alone and single parents will be able to join with one other household from anywhere in Wales for support. A new £300 million support fund for business is being opened. All small businesses getting the small business rate relief will receive a £1000 payment. One-off payments of up to £5000 will be paid to small businesses that have to close. Professional sport will continue. Services to mark Remembrance Sunday, which falls during the lockdown period, will be permitted. The First Minister said at no time than now was it more appropriate to remember the sacrifices made.

The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, made it clear today that the lockdown period would be used ‘purposefully’ to recruit more contact-tracers and to catch up on outstanding contacts who need to be traced. Over the weekend, the Welsh Government revealed that Welsh contact tracers had reached 85% of all cases and 89% of contacts of cases. Wales has a highly successful decentralised contact-tracing system run with cooperation between local authorities, local health boards and Public Health Wales. It’s a complete contrast to the centralized English system which has combined public health resources and outsourced – and hugely expensive – private sector operations. 

The biggest problem the Welsh system has suffered is the delays in processing testing through the UK Government’s Lighthouse Labs. 

The Welsh Government’s objective is – in the absence of a vaccine – to reduce the number of infections, hospitalisations and ultimately deaths from Covid-19.

The Welsh firebreak has led the UK news bulletins today, another sign that the difference  devolution makes is being widely noted. With the announcement of further Covid-19 restrictions on 22 September, BBC Wales figures showed that more people in Wales (525,000) tuned in to the broadcast from the First Minister (525,000) than to the one given that day by the Prime Minister (482,000). 

The most recent opinion polling shows clear public support for the stance taken by the Welsh Government. There has been a substantial decline in Boris Johnson’s popularity in Wales since April. The First Minister has a plus-35% rating for his Government’s handling of the pandemic: the Prime Minister has a minus-22% rating for the way his government has handled it. In April, Welsh opinion was supportive of the UK government’s handling than the Welsh Government’s: by June, that had reversed. And, as Professor Roger Awan-Scully of the Wales Governance Centre has written ‘There have been precious few positives to come out of the Covid-19 crisis, but for Welsh Labour it has at least provided a means for Mark Drakeford to become much better known with the Welsh public than he was during his first twelve months in the role of First Minister.’ 

Last week, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, derided the Welsh Government’s decision to restrict movements into Wales from Covid hotspots elsewhere in the UK, with the jibe that ‘that’s what you get when you vote for socialists’.  With a successful contact-tracing programme, consistent public support, and a carefully-reasoned approach clearly delivered, the Welsh Government will be heading into next year’s Senedd elections with some optimism. Jacob Rees-Mogg’s words may end up on a few posters.

Visit Wales to see what a public health tracing system looks like.

I wrote this for Byline Times

I have lost count of how many times Boris Johnson has promised to improve testing in England since last March. There will always, apparently, be a better tomorrow. We were told things would be back to normal by Christmas. Now things will be ‘very different and better by the spring.’ Anyone who has followed UK politics for a few decades understands that in government, ‘Spring’ is an elastic concept. You’d think it might mean March, or April, or late May. But I’ve seen White Papers and legislation promised ‘by the Spring’ until the summer recess arrived and the spring promise was suspended until autumn.

Is it really so hard to set up and effective testing and tracing system? Perhaps it is if you have already given up on public service and turned to the private sector in the hope of a transformative ‘moonshot’. The Prime Minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, believes that the private sector can do better than the public sector. Transformative performance, he has written in the past, depends on ‘replacing many Whitehall institutions with ones that can change as quickly as the world around them changes.’ It’s the doctrine of ‘disruptive innovation’, based on a technological solutionism that first gave us an app that wasn’t even Isle of Wight-leading, let alone world-leading, and which we now learn has been stuffed full of glitches since its eventual launch in September, with hardly anyone sent alerts because of a failure to adjust the risk threshold, meaning people who should have been isolating weren’t.

We might question further whether centralised state control backed by private sector delivery and imposed technological solutions is better than the low-tech tried-and-tested approach of the decentralised state. Take Test and Trace. In England, additional capacity provided through a privatised approach with contact-tracers left idle for weeks, levels of contact tracing which by the beginning of August were finding half of the close contacts of those diagnosed with Covid-19 at a cost of £900 per person traced, compared to much higher levels through the existing Public Health England system with local public health protection teams, data not being shared with local authorities. Things got so bad that some English local authorities set up their own systems. Next door, in Wales, where the entire Test, Trace and Protect system is being run through the public sector, with local authorities and the NHS collaborating, very high levels of contacts are being tracked and traced. On Friday the Welsh Government reported that Welsh contact tracers had traced 84% of cases and 88% of their contacts in the previous week.

The Welsh Government used the period of lockdown in the Spring to establish its Test, Trace and Protect system (TTP) which formally launched in June. Local authorities redeployed staff from other roles to get the system up and running in collaboration with Public Health Wales and local health boards. The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, confirmed that the current firebreak in Wales would be used ‘purposefully’ to recruit more contact-tracers and to catch up on outstanding contacts who need to be traced. 

The success of the Welsh TTP system has been widely recognised. The biggest problem the Welsh system has suffered is the delays in processing testing through the UK Government’s Lighthouse Labs, where processing of tests is significantly lagging the number of tests carried out, as BBC Newsnight has pointed out last week.

No Welsh Government since the creation of the then National Assembly for Wales in 1999 has had to cope with the scale of a challenge like Covid-19. No other issue has established the realities of devolution more clearly in the public mind. The most recent opinion polling showed clear public support for the stance taken by the Welsh Government. 

Yet there has been a substantial decline in Boris Johnson’s popularity in Wales since April. The First Minister has a plus-35% rating for his Government’s handling of the pandemic: the Prime Minister has a minus-22% rating for the way his government has handled it. 

Wales is due to come out of its firebreak on 9 November, while England will still be in lockdown. The Welsh Government used the opportunity afforded by the half-term break to kick off the firebreak, while Johnsonian dither and delay put off the new English lockdown at the cost of thousands of lives. In Wales, there has been clarity on the rules and the objectives and considerable unity, aside from the Welsh Conservatives, who complained about Wales’s 17 day firebreak only to have the UK Prime Minister pull the rug from under their feet with his late announcement of a longer lockdown in England. 

How long will Tory MPs put up with a Prime Minister without a strategy? How long will they tolerate failure? Time is running out for Johnson.  

What were March’s war aims?

Byline Times published this from me at the beginning of August:

If we were in a war, what was our war aim?

Leighton Andrews

The rhetoric of war has underpinned the UK Government’s view of Covid-19 since the beginning. ‘We must act like any wartime government’, said the Prime Minister on 17 March. The latest figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University suggests that the UK – largely because of England – has proportionately the highest death rate in the world. If we’re in a war, we aren’t winning. 

Many sensible people have suggested that the language of war is not appropriate. But since that has been the government’s language since the beginning, let’s take it at face value. If we were in a war, what was the war aim? What was the point of lockdown? With the easing of lockdown now on hold in England, don’t be surprised if more and more people come to question the Johnson government strategy. ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ football fans chant at a referee who loses control of a game. It seems an apt summary of the government’s strategy. 

So let’s go back to the beginning. Before lockdown started on 23 March. 

On 20 March, the Prime Minister said his objective in respect of the virus was, ‘by eliminating it, to stamp it out.’ Many of us went into lockdown hoping that indeed the government’s strategy was the elimination of the virus. That lockdown would buy us time. That systems would be in place by the end of lockdown to ensure we got to a point where we could do rather more than ‘control the virus’. 

Eliminating the virus has not featured in the government’s strategy since then. You won’t find elimination in the messages about easing the lockdown. Instead, ‘our apparent success’, declared on 27 April, our ‘victory over this virus’ announced by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons on 23 June, is that the NHS was not overwhelmed. 

It’s good news that the NHS wasn’t overwhelmed in any of the nations of the UK. It was a reasonable, indeed important, objective to protect the NHS. But was that really the war aim? What happened to elimination, the aim Johnson declared on 20 March? The explanation is there in the 20 March statement:

We are going to do it with testing. We are going to do it with new medicines, and with new digital technology that will help us to see the disease as it is transmitted, and thereby, by eliminating it, to stamp it out.

These were the things that were going to ‘turn the tide’ against coronavirus within three months. To ‘send the coronavirus packing’ within twelve weeks. We now know that the testing system is not fit for purpose. In England, there isn’t an effective test, trace and protect strategy as we have in other nations of the UK. Until recently, national testing results weren’t even being shared with local government. As for the new digital technology, Hancock’s half-baked app didn’t make it out of beta.

We know that Johnson never wanted to go into lockdown. He said on 3 February in Greenwich that such an idea was ‘bizarre autarkic rhetoric’. 

Forced to go into lockdown when it looked like he might preside over half a million deaths, he made great claims about eliminating the virus but never had any strategy that could deliver that elimination. And now he has had to ‘squeeze that brake pedal’ as it’s become apparent that the virus is going nowhere. It’s not a squeezing of the brake pedal. It’s a handbrake turn. 

Johnson brought England out of lockdown without the necessary testing regime to keep the virus at bay, let alone eliminate it. Thankfully, governments in Wales and Scotland have been more cautious – and in Northern Ireland they have the Republic of Ireland’s systems to borrow. 

There is no UK strategy. There is no war aim. There is no plan. Squash the sombrero; whack a mole; operation last gasp; squeeze the brake pedal: these are tactics, not a strategy. What’s next – jerk the steering wheel? Boy racer Boris needs to learn that Bunteresque jolly japes won’t get us out of this crisis.

It’s no wonder that polling shows a lack of confidence about returning to work, school or nursery. Pig out to help out won’t work without public confidence that the Government knows what it is doing. Trust is low, for good reason: no-one knows what the Government’s strategy is. Rely on the Common Sense of the British People? 80% plus want masks to be worn in public. But the PM’s core supporters, the Delingpoles, the Swaynes, the Conservative Party card-shredders, reject that. 

They don’t know what they’re doing. We can be clear about one thing. Elimination was not the point of lockdown. Elimination isn’t now the UK Government’s war aim. If ever it was. There’s no war aim. And no strategy.

History’s Actors

The article carried this piece by me on 1 June.

We’re not an Empire now

If you listen to the 2017 album from the American indie band The National, Sleep Well Beast, on the third track, Walk it Back, you will hear the following spoken in sombre tones:

People like you are still living in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. 

 The quote comes, allegedly, from an interview with the former Republican and Bush strategist, Karl Rove (rhymes with Gove). Although Rove subsequently disputed it, the journalist who interviewed him for the New York Times in 2002, Ron Suskind, subsequently set down the quote in full in an article on Bush’s ‘faith-based presidency’ in 2004. It goes on:

while you are studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

History’s Actors versus the Reality-based Community. It’s a good summary of how the Cummings-Johnson premiership sees the world. Inspire rage in your opponents, let them rationally deconstruct your actions while you tilt the playing-field again, keeping them guessing and never able to land a knock-out blow. ‘I’ve learned over the years that ‘rational discussion’ accomplishes almost nothing in politics’ said Cummings in 2017.

It’s a handicap of the liberal-left often to assume our opponents on the right are stupid and don’t know what they are doing. Johnson may appear increasingly inarticulate and out of his depth as Prime Minister, but Cummings isn’t stupid. He is intelligent, clever and dangerous. Unlike his boss, he is strategic and thinks several steps ahead. As the historian Stefan Collini wrote after studying Cummings’ blogs and Odyssean Education essay:

His writing displays an alarming ability to focus on a goal to the exclusion of noticing, or caring about, any amount of collateral damage. Emotions mostly figure as forms of irrational distraction. Toes, after all, were put in the world largely to be trodden on.

His intellectual arrogance and lack of emotional intelligence may be what loses him his job in the end.

Cummings understands state power and the potential of a modernised state machinery. I wrote in January, before Coronavirus hit, that Cummings had ‘a focus on the need for a more efficient and modernised state machinery: and a profound fury at the inefficiencies of existing state procedures (which many who have served in governments will share).’

Tony Blair’s political secretary John McTernan calls Cummings ‘a man with a plan’    . It is an agenda for state modernisation, in which advanced technologies – driven by a strong dose of utopian technocracy – will be at the forefront.

Several of Cummings’ ambitions for government, and what Collini calls his ‘dismissive impatience’, might actually be shared across the political spectrum. The demand for a British DARPA, for example, was endorsed by the 2019 report on a Mission-led approach to the UK economy authored by Mariana Mazzucato and David Willetts. This argued strongly for systematic support for science and technology as part of engaging the state in co-creating public value. It was an approach which involved and engaged several UK government departments.

Underpinning the Cummings-Johnson strategy, and its campaigning, has been a form of English exceptionalism. When Seymour Martin Lipset’s American Exceptionalism book came out in 1996 I recall a frisson of excitement amongst the Conservative Party policy wonks who used to attend the receptions and dinners and visits to the Proms that my team at the BBC used to organise. Was there not, I heard some of them say, a kind of English exceptionalism that underpinned the conservatism of England – the kind of individualist, mercantile philosophy which differentiated English from continental history? It’s the end-of-Empire philosophy that drove the Brexit campaign.

For Johnson, that English exceptionalism reinforces his ‘great man’ theory of history, spelt out in his biography of Churchill. Cummings’ understanding of history is a lot more intelligent and a lot more nuanced. Johnson’s heroic leadership model, and its associated imagery, has been actively constructed through management of the government’s narrative, assisted by Conservative-supporting newspapers. Following his welcome recovery from the virus, the Johnson soap opera has developed into a narrative of individual personal responsibility, in which British common sense and ‘doing our duty’ will carry the day.

Cummings’ flit to Durham threatens of course to undermine this narrative, as the public sees a prominent government figure flouting the rules.

In general, rules don’t matter to ‘History’s Actors’. Johnson’s political career is littered with norm-breaking to the extent that it is impossible any longer to believe in the Nolan consensus established twenty-five years ago. While we in the reality-based community are judiciously analysing their behaviour, they are moving on to the latest outrage, acting again, creating a new reality.

Sometimes, because of this, the liberal-left focuses on a legitimate target – law-breaking in the Brexit referendum, Russian disinformation in the U.S. election – while missing an obvious truth. In the Brexit referendum, Cummings understood the need to reach beyond the existing electorate, and that Facebook advertising would be key. An additional 3 million people voted in 2016, in part reached by social media advertising and the sharing of material which engaged them. Roger Mcnamee, long-time Facebook investor turned recent Facebook critic, says in his book Zucked, that the Brexit side’s message ‘was perfect for the algorithms and the other’s wasn’t’.

Russian disinformation certainly played a role in the 2016 US election,says Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson   , but more important was Fox News and the network of conservative and alt-right media outlets operating on Facebook and other platforms, as Yochai Benkler and his colleagues have identified. Trump’s campaign poured $70 million into Facebook advertising: they knew how to exploit the algorithms.

Social media offers the opportunity for direct communication with the electorate by demographic and interest, bypassing mediated commentary and edited outlets. We used to see the Obama campaign as the exemplar of this. Today, we see the blurring of boundaries between the orthodox conservative right and the extreme-right as emotions are triggered with polarizing and xenophobic material. Facebook has known since early 2016 that its algorithms promote extremism , although it took Mark Zuckerberg until late 2018 to acknowledge this   . We have moved from the dog-whistle tactics of Michael Howard’s Are you thinking what we’re thinking campaign in the 2005 General Election   to the overt exploitation of xenophobia in the 2016 referendum with the objective of creating a new coalition.

In his flailing attempts to defend Cummings over the past week, Johnson has come to look more like Trump than Churchill. Lying has been part of Johnson’s stock in trade since he was a journalist. Academic research says that for the lying demagogue to have authentic appeal, it is sufficient that one side of a social divide regards the political system as flawed or illegitimate. Crises of legitimacy, such as the post-referendum crisis, create space for such figures to cast themselves as authentic speakers of truth to power, giving their supporters cover to forgive breaches of norms that formerly would have been condemned.

Johnson has wasted a lot of political capital to defend Cummings, but with the Durham police’s decision not to take further action, he may have got away with it. Cummings’ behaviour, however, such as his refusal to admit wrongdoing, and his truculent and petulant attitude towards journalists outside his home, all captured on camera, have not endeared him to the British public. Opinion polling shows that most people feel what he did was wrong, and he should have resigned. It’s one rule for him and another for the rest of us. The Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland was probably the first to note, though others have said it since, that far from being the crusader against the Westminster élite that he has liked to pretend, Cummings now stands exposed as the ultimate insider, representative of the view that rules don’t apply to him.

In the short-term, Cummings may have got away with it. But in this crisis, unlike others, the government actually needs the ‘reality-based community’ as it ‘follows the science’. And the scientists are clear that the Cummings episode has, in the words of Professor Steve Reicher, ‘trashed’ the core public health messages necessary to build public trust and control the virus:

If the numbers infected with Coronavirus rise again, if the deaths from the virus mount again, if we head into a second wave, Johnson and Cummings will be blamed.

Johnson may increasingly resemble not Churchill but a different Empire character found in fiction: Billy Bunter. Lazy, dishonest, convinced of his own rectitude and heroism, bumbling from one calamity to another, contemptuous of rules and above all of a ‘girly swot’, unwilling to put the work in, unable to rise at the moment of deepest national crisis above the level of the clown image he has so carefully cultivated.

Behind him, meanwhile, lurks the man with a plan, determined that history’s actors will triumph over the reality-based community. And yet, at this time, they need the reality-based community to deliver, or we will all be in lockdown again.

If lockdown happens again, there will be a search for scapegoats. Matt Hancock already looks like someone who knows his political career is on the rocks. Do not, in the end, underestimate Johnson’s own ruthlessness. Guto Harri, who worked for Johnson when he was London mayor, has already forecast that Cummings will not last beyond the summer. In a revealing phrase, Johnson gave his view of advisers away to Harri: ‘“All glory,” as Boris used to playfully put it, “goes to the fuhrer.”’

All glory to the leader. All blame, ultimately, to the adviser. Ultimately, Johnson wants to be one of History’s Actors.

But he’d do well to remember: we’re not an Empire now.

 

The forward march of devolution halted

The forward march of devolution halted? Wales after the lockdown.

(This was published in the Institute of Welsh Affairs magazine Agenda in May)

COVID-19 doesn’t respect borders. And nor does UK Government messaging. On 10 April, the ‘UK Government in Wales’ tweeted that the first drive-in testing centre in Wales had been opened, at the Cardiff City stadium. We had known this was happening for some time, of course, as it had featured in Welsh Government press briefings, and it was obvious to anyone cycling past. But for those of us who thought that health was devolved, this was a signal that we are in new territory: a UK government stepping on the Welsh Government’s toes.

I was told subsequently that Deloitte’s had landed a contract across the UK for 50 drive-in test centres, though Public Health Wales is now operating the one at Cardiff City and it was the Welsh Government which was blamed when the centre was shut on Easter Monday. It makes sense of course for the Welsh Government to join in on UK-wide procurements, not least to avoid price-gouging as has been seen in respect of PPE. But the subsequent propaganda from the department formerly known as the Wales Office suggests a deeper agenda. The COVID-19 crisis is intensifying a process already visible in the period following the December UK General Election: a post-Brexit activist unionism, intended to redraw the evolving constitutional settlement of the previous 20 years.

May 2020 marks the point at which Wales has been living with what the French call cohabitation for a decade: one party in power in Cardiff Bay, another at Westminster. The next period is likely to test the resilience of devolution. We could be heading towards what I call ‘Devolution In Name Only’ – or DINO for short. And the DINO-saurs have a strategy.

This strategy is based on proposals that the think-tank Policy Exchange has been developing for a radical constitutional re-ordering: re-branding the Supreme Court as an Upper Court of Appeal, essentially nullifying its role as a constitutional court, strengthening ministerial oversight of judicial appointments and limiting judicial review,  the re-establishment of Parliamentary sovereignty but with the executive’s powers reinforced, limits on the Human Rights Act and on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have already been politicised.

The agenda isn’t limited to constitutional matters: there is an emphasis on UK government investment, particularly in infrastructure. Central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans.

In the General Election, the Conservatives promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The stage is set for a new War on Wales, but perhaps through a more subtle approach than the Cameron years. Michael Gove recently penned an article in the Western Mail stressing what he said was the UK Government’s additional £2 billion investment in Wales to help address the COVID-19 threat, the role played by the army in coordination, cooperation between the UK and Welsh governments, and reiterating the five UK Government tests rather than the seven questions outlined by the First Minister, Mark Drakeford.

This is an activist infrastructure-driven and clientelism-based Unionism designed to undermine and minimise the role of the devolved governments. COVID-19 offers further opportunities effectively to dilute the already inadequate inter-governmental arrangements. The devolved administrations may attend COBR meetings but are observers only on SAGE, while the PM’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, is a participant. England’s chief medical officer has, apparently, the role of chief medical adviser to the UK government.

This agenda is aided of course by Wales’s fragmented public sphere. Paradoxically, Welsh journalists have been doing a better job of holding the Welsh Government to account than UK journalists have been doing with the UK Government. The dominant UK narrative has become neither the excess and preventable deaths nor the failures in planning and logistics but the Boris Johnson personal soap opera. It is possible to be pleased that the Prime Minister recovered from a dangerous virus and has a new-born son without succumbing to journalistic sycophancy. Meanwhile far more people in Wales read the Daily Mail than the Western Mail, and the Daily Mail’s own gung-ho story of flying in PPE to aid the NHS sets the ‘we can beat this’ tone.

The wider UK narrative – first Brexit, now COVID-19 – has drowned our national public sphere in Wales for the last four years. Welsh Government initiatives will get UK media attention when they differ from or are seen to pre-empt decisions of the UK government, such as announcements on closing schools, ruling out an early exit from the lockdown, or setting out the key questions governing the decision on whether the lock-down should be eased. Occasionally stories will surface on programmes like You and Yours about how Wales is being more generous in investing in support for homeless people than is England. But the narrative of difference cuts both ways: so if England is testing more care-home residents or staff, then that becomes a stick to beat the Welsh Government, whatever its efficacy.

The lockdown has seen the emergence of popular responses such as the weekly ‘clap for the carers’, originally for NHS workers but intended now to capture all those in caring roles. It has become very clear that when people speak of ‘the NHS’ they are applauding the efforts of the NHS across the UK, no matter that academics write these days about four NHSs with different operating structures. This ‘natural patriotism’ is a UK phenomenon, an expression of solidarity. In the period of Brexit I once wondered if Unionism was capable of producing an emotional response in its support. We have seen that emotional response in the backing for the NHS as a symbol of the best of us – and that doesn’t stop at the Welsh border. Though emotion for the BBC may be a long time coming, its necessity as a public service has become ever more evident, with record television audiences for the Prime Minister and the Queen. The attacks on it from the Tory right, have largely been confined to occasional outbursts focused on specific programmes like the Panorama exposé on PPE.

The UK narrative has of course dominated our news coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, with the statements from the UK Government press conferences, however inane many of those have been, providing the broadcast news lead. Facilitated by a centralised media, bolstered by a slavishly loyal tabloid press, this renewed activist unionism and its possible endurance after the lockdown should not be underestimated. Unless, of course, the inevitable public inquiry, potentially so different with evidence from the devolved administrations certain to be heard, actually cuts through with direct and sharp criticisms of the failures in planning and delivery and the U.K.’s excess death exceptionalism.

We need a new Nolan to restore trust in government.

This was my article on The Article

For most of his working life, Boris Johnson has behaved as though rules and social norms were meant for others, not him. So it was no surprise to learn that his boast that he ‘shook hands with everybody’ was made on the same day that SAGE’s behavioural science subcommittee had recommended hand-shaking should stop.

Next week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Nolan report on standards in public life. For most of this last quarter‐century, the Nolan Report has provided the underlying ethical basis for public life in the United Kingdom.

Since Brexit, that has changed. Prior to the Brexit vote, ministerial transgressions would have been accompanied by a public outcry which would have shortened the ministerial lives of those involved. Post‐2016 they are being routinely ignored.

In this new era, ministers can perform badly but not be sacked. They can mislead Parliament but escape punishment. Ministers can undermine civil servants without consequence to themselves. Ex‐Ministers could ignore Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) rules and a year later become prime minister.

When the public inquiry into COVID-19 arrives, as long as it is held on a statutory basis and statements have to be given under oath, the current governmental consensus will break down. Already, in hearings of the Health and Science and Technology Select Committees, we have seen scientists and medical advisers having to admit that resource constraints affected early decisions on testing and PPE. The future inquiry will hear from representatives of the Welsh and Scottish governments who have already made it clear how Prime Ministerial announcements are being briefed without their involvement in the messaging. Advisers and officials are getting ready to break ranks, with the Cygnus pandemic flu exercise analysis now put into the public domain.

The question has yet to be put, but in due course we will see how advice on ‘the vulnerable’ was changed after the 16 March statement by the English Chief Medical Adviser that the vulnerable – which he defined as those advised to have a flu jab – would be asked to shield themselves. That amounted to a potential twenty million-plus people, so within a couple of weeks an algorithm had been created to sort ‘the vulnerable’ from ‘the extremely vulnerable’ and reduce the number being asked to shield to around 1.5 million. Meanwhile older and disabled patients were moved out of hospitals expected to be needed for COVID-19 patients into care homes, a decision which might have seemed rational at the time but we know now was carried out without proper planning or ensuring the availability of the necessary equipment and testing.

When the inevitable inquiry takes place, one of the questions it will need to answer is whether in this new era, the Nolan principles still apply. The Prime Minister’s personal conduct suggests that it does not.

Nolan recommended that, like senior civil servants, ministers who leave office should seek permission from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) before accepting a business role.

In July 2018, within a week of resigning as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson signed a contract with the Daily Telegraph to write a weekly column. He did not apply to ACOBA for permission until two weeks after signing the contract. The Committee refused to grant retrospective advice, stating that Johnson’s actions were “a breach of the rules”.

In December 2018 Boris Johnson was also told by the Commons Standards Committee to apologise for his “over‐casual” failure to declare £52,000 worth of expenses. However, Johnson’s political career has clearly been unaffected by these transgressions.

Other apparent breaches of the Ministerial Code, including the duty to avoid confusing ministerial and political work, and to avoid using government facilities for party political purposes, or transparency over meetings with lobbying groups, appear to have been ignored. Boris Johnson hosted the launch of a political think-tank, the Institute for Free Trade (later re‐named the Initiative for Free Trade), at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Ministerial Code places a responsibility on all ministers “to uphold the impartiality of the Civil Service”. They should be professional in their dealings with the Civil Service and give due weight and respect to the advice that they are given. In 2019, we saw the resignation of the UK Ambassador to the United States, Sir Kim Darroch, after his confidential comments on the US President were leaked to British newspapers. Darroch resigned after the refusal of Boris Johnson, to endorse him during one of the Conservative leadership debates. The former US ambassador to the European Union, Anthony Gardner, tweeted, ‘We are truly living during a religious war. Decency goes out the window and there is no sense of outrage’. Meanwhile, reports have multiplied about Civil Service departures and a decline in morale.

It’s doubtful how many now remember John Major’s hope that the Nolan Committee would be an ‘ethical workshop’.The Nolan Report depended on a shared political consensus about the norms which underpin standards in public life.

That consensus rested on peer endorsement within Westminster. It required peer pressure to uphold agreed standards. It demanded a media that endorsed those standards and ways of operating, and refused to downplay breaches of norms simply because the politician affected shared their views on a particular issue.

It probably also depended on a public which had not yet reached the state of cynicism about parliamentarians that the 2009 expenses scandal produced. In the UK today, attitudes to Brexit determine attitudes to political norms. Sadly, as Alastair Campbell has written, we live in a ‘post‐shame’ world.

We can all feel human sympathy for a Prime Minister who has felt the brutal effects of COVID-19. But with the UK now recording the highest number of deaths in Europe, the current crisis cannot be reduced to a personal soap opera. And the Prime Minister will not get away with the usual flannel any longer.

It is not irrelevant to this crisis that we have a Prime Minister whose track record of breaking rules on business appointments or reporting of financial interests or scientific advice on disease transmission suggests they regard these as matters for people other than themselves. It is central to the inquiry that must come. We live in a post‐Nolan age, and Boris Johnson is its embodiment. If trust in government is to be restored, we need a new Nolan.

 

Johnson channels JFK

I knew I’d heard a version of ‘moment of maximum risk’ before. The reason I knew was that I remembered saying to senior officials in my department when I was Education Minister in about 2012  that this was ‘the moment of maximum danger’ for our school improvement policy: we had buy-in across the sector, but now we needed the resources on the ground to enable people to deliver, and if we failed in that we would lose momentum and support.

So last night I posted a request on Twitter for help in tracking down the original, and thanks to Daryl Leeworthy and Jon Coles we tracked it down. It’s from JFK’s inaugural speech, where he refers to the ‘hour of maximum danger’:

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility–I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.

So there you have it. Johnson channels JFK. Not, I think something they would have said about that other Johnson – LBJ.

When the crisis is over

I published this on The Article on 16 April:

The Commission of Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks in the United States said when it reported that the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures: in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management. There will be a Public Inquiry into the conduct of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK, and it will be harsh in all four areas.

In every area of social life what seemed unthinkable has now happened. So, first, imagination. This, said the 9/11 Commission, ‘is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies.’ The exercise of imagination needed to become routine. We know that pandemics featured as a high priority in the National Risk Register and there had been a pandemic planning exercise in 2016. But lessons weren’t learned. And it is likely that the government’s imaginative and cognitive bandwidth had been stretched by its Brexit planning and election fighting by early 2020 and that crucial decisions were delayed, in part because the necessary processing of the unthinkable did not take place early enough.

Policy. Policy changed alarmingly quickly with an about-turn in mid-March, even though many experts have said that the signs were obvious by February. As Professor Colin Talbot has pointed out, early in March, mass gatherings were ok. Then, but only after the Cheltenham races and the Stereophonics concerts and the Liverpool/Athletico Madrid game, they weren’t. School closures weren’t necessary, then they were. PPE wasn’t essential, then it was. Mask-wearing wasn’t necessary, now maybe it is. In the last week, leaks suggested that the Home Office still believes that 80% of UK citizens will get the virus. On March 16, the chief medical officer said all those who  were vulnerable – those who were advised to have the annual flu vaccination – would be asked to shield themselves. Then, after it dawned that this meant 19 million people, a revised version of this for the ‘extremely vulnerable’ – 1.5 million people – became the emphasis. Except that care homes, already housing thousands of the extremely vulnerable, were forgotten.

Capabilities. One of the successes of the crisis has been military logistics – the building of the Nightingale hospital in London, the Dragon’s Heart hospital in Cardiff’s international rugby stadium, and many others. The transformation of operational focus in the health services in the four nations has debunked criticism of the dexterity of the NHS. The development of the furlough and business financial packages are successes of government adaptability. There has been one important communications success – the clarity of the core message of Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives. But there are long-term issues which have demonstrated our over-reliance on global supply chains in respect of testing, PPE equipment and ventilator manufacture. Ventilator developments have been stop-start, with some schemes initially announced with great fanfares subsequently dropped.

Management. Implementation is always the forgotten end of policy. Unfortunately, over-promising and under-delivering has been the norm. Press conferences are full of mixed messages and uncertainty. Targets announced by ministers for testing and ventilator production have come and gone. There is silence about the work-streams the government is managing to deliver progress in different areas. The comprehensive financial package announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, one of those who actually sounds like a grown-up when he is holding a press conference, needs detailed clarification on its longevity and the money needs to be released sooner. Payment of Universal Credit was already taking too long and now there are millions more claimants. Some universities are on the brink of insolvency with no obvious rescue in sight.

Looking ahead now instead of looking back, it is obvious that as other European countries start to unlock their lockdowns that comparisons will be drawn and questions will be asked here. In Denmark, the equivalent of primary schools are going back. In Spain some businesses are re-opening. This week President Macron gave some examples of a phased re-opening when extending the French lockdown to 11 May. But the UK strategy for relaxing the lockdown is opaque. It’s not clear that one exists. As Keir Starmer has said, public trust will depend on transparency and openness. No-one is asking for a detailed timetable, but the strategy should give some indication of the factors that will determine how a lockdown should be relaxed, such as mass testing and contact tracing, as well as an indication of what happens if, as expected, there are future waves of the virus. Greater effort needs to be made to integrate the thinking of the devolved administrations, who will make the decisions on school re-opening, for example, with that of the UK Government.

Underpinning this, of course, is the sense of a vacuum in political leadership. For very human reasons, the Prime Minister is beyond criticism at the present time. He is politically untouchable. But the proper sympathy extended to him for his recovery cannot be an excuse for dither at the centre of government. Key decisions will have to be made. Clarity will be needed in all statements about future strategy. A sense of hope for the coming reconstruction period is crucial.