When politicians, statesmen, diplomats and monarchs slept, Europe slid towards catastrophe. Why does it feel depressingly similar today in the face of multiple crises?
“It feels ironical that [Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng] was one of the Tory MPs (along with Liz Truss) who once wrote a book claiming that British workers were “among the worst idlers in the world”. High praise! The UK “rewards laziness” apparently, which feels accurate in this case, given that 10 years on, Kwarteng is now a cabinet minister whose job is being done by TV’s Martin Lewis, along with those of about four other secretaries of state.”Marina Hyde, 12 Aug 2022 in The Guardian
Will the real Kwasi Kwarteng please stand up?
Kwarteng is supposed to be the one with the intellect! This is someone who got a double-first from Cambridge and holds a Ph.D in Economic history from the same institution! It’s not like the man’s a fool – his book War and Gold: A Five-Hundred-Year History of Empires, Adventures and Debt review – a comprehensive study of money and society was well-reviewed – even by The Observer back in 2014. So how come as a Cabinet Minister the only time we seem to notice him is when he’s on telly reading out lines to take drafted by a political adviser? In junior ministerial posts when he was on TV I found it excruciating to hear his responses – but sort-of-excusable because as a junior minister you are not the main decision-maker. But as a Secretary of State? I cannot figure that out at all.
Labour get it in the neck from Marina too
“I note that the Labour leader is finally beginning to unfurl his proposed economic package like the fronds of a not-to-be-rushed rare fern, but leaving Gordon Brown to step in and make the counter-argument for him has felt a lot like getting your mum to do your school project.”Marina Hyde, 12 Aug 2022 in The Guardian
***Yeowch!!!*** That’s gotta hurt!
That was an opinion piece that took no party political prisoners! One that was so volcanically hot that weather forecasters might mistake it for being the source of the heatwave! Given the very readable, witty, and sharp takes Marina Hyde has on politics generally, this one was bang on target.
“Where is the urgency from top politicians?”
In fact, where are the top politicians?!?!
Because it feels something out of that long hot summer of 1914 when The Kaiser departed on his yacht on a cruise through Norwegian waters, and the politicians & diplomats went off on summer breaks. Or so the faded GCSE history books told us in the mid-1990s. What we didn’t have at school back then but do have today is online access to the transcript from Parliament in the run up to war being declared by the various European powers. Have a look here at Hansard for July 1914 and pick out the individual items relating to Austria and ‘the European situation’. Also here for August 1914.
“Our Ambassador at Berlin received his passports at seven o’clock last evening, and since eleven o’clock last night a state of war has existed between Germany and ourselves.”Prime Minister Asquith to the House of Commons, 05 August 1914.
And just as those transcripts indicate how fast moving those events were happening and how ministers struggled to cope, is the same happening today only in a different context on the same scale?
Instead of dealing with the crises at hand, all too often we’ve had inflammatory rhetoric inevitably aimed at a partisan electorate that are members of the Conservative Party through the medium of the newspapers that back them. Today that rhetoric crossed the line for many when Truss made an astonishing attack on the very civil service that she will be dependent upon when she returns to ministerial office. (Even if Sunak wins, I can’t see him sending her to the back benches). Two of the three civil service trade unions have publicly written to Truss calling her to show the evidence or withdraw the remarks.
*I used to be a branch rep for the FDA Union when I was on the Civil Service Fast Stream.
Shelagh Fogarty on LBC (formerly of BBC Five Live) for me got it spot on.
Where are the radical ideas, the urgent actions that ministers must undertake to get us out of the hole they have thrown us all into?
And yet again, it’s an historical text that perhaps is even more damning of the current government even though the words were written for one over a century ago.
“Effective Parliamentary machinery and a reformed diplomatic service, together with an accurately and regularly-informed Press, would give the elector the kind and degree of control for which the common people is fitted.
“If debates in Parliament and discussions in daily and weekly papers were based upon unimpeachable facts, we should not have the absurd spectacle of a Foreign Minister, who has for eight years shrouded himself in impenetrable mystery, coming down to the People’s House and declaring within forty-eight hours of his ultimatum that the issue of peace and war is in the hands of the people and subsequently hurling at the bewildered public a justificatory white book, whose diplomatic jargon is so remote from the language of common life that it is only with difficulty that the plain man can discover from it that his country has for years been committed to a policy which he — the plain man — thought had been categorically and repeatedly repudiated by the Cabinet“Helena Swanwick, (1915) Women and the War, p12
Suffragist Helena Swanwick – one of the early students at Girton College, Cambridge, became an active member of the Union for Democratic Control.
Over a century later, we are still waiting for some of these things. And when we get to the final page, we see the words of Helena Swanwick sound very similar to calls for greater community power in politics and public services.
That can be taken today as a call for voting reform so that every vote counts (Whether through proportional representation, to the system that the London Assembly has) or at least where more votes count such as being able to express second preferences, or using the system the European Parliament has with multi-member constituencies over larger regions.
The Union of Democratic Control ultimately dissolved in 1966, though part of me wonders whether it might be time to bring it back – or have an existing institution to pick up its reins. (Second hand copies of their publications can still be found).
“It’s still not going to solve the immediate problems”
And it’s not just the UK – have a look at the great River Rhine in Germany. Over to Jayne Secker on Sky.
Above – the Rhine down to 40cm. Incredible.
And yet when we think back to 2008 and the banking crisis, for all his flaws at least Gordon Brown was able to mobilise and deal with it – hence why his interventions have been welcomed by more than a few quarters, even though there are inevitable flaws in what he proposes. (For example why bail out the energy firms instead of renationalising the entire set of public utilities?)
And that’s before we look at housing. Rent arrears and evictions are picking up. The last thing anyone needs in the middle of a heatwave with extreme weather warnings.
And as if to coincide with being halfway through our current Amber Warning for extreme heat, large parts of England – including Cambridge, are now officially in a drought.
Parliament is in recess so mainstream political institutions shut down for the summer – a bit like the school holidays
The problem is that major crises don’t work to such timetables. As Gordon Brown said earlier, Crises don’t take holidays.
One big problem we the public are facing is we are not seeing any visible action from The Government that resembles even a crisis response. There’s nothing. A big nothing. A big political vacuum. To paraphrase Ben Elton, if The Government’s responses to these crises stood still in a room for long enough it would suck the floor up – and then some! There’s nothing happening outside of inflammatory rhetoric and blaming others.
As Marina Hyde concludes:
“In recent weeks the blob has been retrospectively blamed for Johnson’s demise, and pre-emptively blamed for a Truss prime ministership’s failings, and as these crises deepen you can be sure it’ll carry on being cited by increasing numbers of lazy, unfocused or ineffective ministers trying to put the blame for ordinary people’s anguish anywhere other than their own doorsteps. The blob?! Sorry, but no. Don’t talk to us about the blob. THE BLOB IS YOU.”Marina Hyde, 12 Aug 2022 in The Guardian
Only Mr Blobby has more competence and has greater popularity.
…even getting to No1 in the singles charts.
Food for thought?