Gale`s Westminster View – August 2011.
August. London burns. The Arab Spring has turned into a long, hot summer. A new dawn or a winter of discontent? The House is recalled again. And again. The bloody Tower is claimed to be higher than mighty, Milipede Minor takes tell-tale books on holiday, ten thousand petitioners say bring back capital punishment” and Sally Bercow flits fleetingly into and out of the awful Big Brother House.
The ripples of the phone hacking saga continue to lap at the shores of the news ponds. Former Editor of the News of the World, Stuart Kuttner, is arrested and Heather Mills McCartney accuses Daily Mirror of eavesdropping on her intimate phone calls. Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of this ongoing drama is that anyone should be surprised that Murdoch people hacked phones or believe that this squalid practice was confined to only one group of newspapers. What is now done electronically used to be done with bulldog clips on phone wires and long-tom lenses on cameras. The technology may have changed but press intrusion is not exactly a recent phenomenon. But hell hath no fury like a solicitor scorned. With opprobrium attaching to NoW lawyers Harbottle and Lewis the latter release the Goodman letters” in their unexpurgated form. These appear to suggest that far from knowing nothing of the phone hacking practice Mr. Andy Coulson, late of Downing Street, knew a very great deal while editor of the paper. Mr James Murdoch, also, would seem to have been not a little disingenuous in the evidence that he gave to the DCMS select committee. With further hearings inevitably due when the House sits again this show could run and run. That should give the 275 parliamentary sparrows who collectively spend a thousand hours a year twittering something to tweet about.
Having been kept in detention for a day at the start of the summer recess the House is rightly recalled, and the Prime Minister flies home, to debate the eruption of violence, looting, arson and theft on, first, the streets of London and subsequently in major towns and cities around the land. As we head into autumn it all seems like a very long time ago but the riots commenced in Tottenham following the police shooting of a suspected small-time drug dealer. As the violence spreads to East and South and West London and to the Midlands and the North the BBC leads the left-wing charge to place the blame for the uprising” upon Tory Cuts” and London`s Mayoral candidate Ken Livingstone, never one to miss a passing bandwagon, also cites property and cuts” as the root cause of the disturbances.
We are confronted with the images of a woman leaping to her safety from a burning house and of Croydon`s fifth-generation department store, founded by Maurice Reeves in 1867 and a building that survived two World Wars, the depression and the commercial threat of IKEA, lying in rubble and ruins after the night before. It quickly becomes apparent that social networking” has allowed those orchestrating a thieving spree to stay several steps ahead of the constabulary in the early stages of the street war. It is also clear that it is not just, or even, a social underclass” that is guilty of opportunist theft and violence and anti-social behaviour. Some very middle-class young people from hitherto-respectable homes are every bit as guilty as others.
With the Prime Minister back in Town and sixteen thousand police on the streets of London at night the troubles are kettled and the political blame-game and credit-claims begin. The government, in the form, particularly, of the Man in No 10 and his Home Secretary, can take significant credit for instigating robust action and follow-through from arrests to convictions and sentence but the President of ACPO (the Chief Police Officer`s Trade Union), Sir Hugh Orde, avows that police decisions were made by police commanders” without the intervention of Cabinet Ministers. The truth probably lies somewhere between the Cabinet and Scotland Yard but the Prime Minister`s line strikes a chord with the nation when he asserts that people cannot behave as if their choices have no consequences and that they were nicking TVs because they wanted a TV and they weren’t prepared to save up for it like normal people and felt that they could get away with it”.
The results of children without fathers, schools without discipline, reward without effort, crime without punishment, rights without responsibilities and communities without control” the Prime Minister tells a recalled Commons, is ”a slow motion moral collapse”.
A personal view is that an over liberal Justice Department must take at least some responsibility for the transmission of weak signals and the release of children back onto the streets. Because there are enough prison sentences” and the system is working”, as Ken Clarke says, is scarcely reassuring to public or police when it transpires that one fifth of those responsible for the burglary, looting and violence are children under seventeen. People taking part in violent disorder must expect to go to prison” says Cameron and if you`re old enough to commit the crime you`re old enough to face the punishment”. With courts sitting through the night and a relaxation of the sentencing guidelines justice begins to be seen to be done. It is inevitable that the metropolitan liberal commentariat screams blue murder as young thieves find themselves facing gaol sentences following the bloody assizes” it is curious how relatively little public service broadcast airtime is devoted to those murdered or to the 44 metropolitan police officers injured on the first night of the violence alone. The Prime Minister is right to have said that we have reached a fork in the road. The route to the left has been found wanting.
Although a supporter of the re-introduction of the death penalty as the maximum available sentence for murder I would not, personally, advocate the use of execution to control looting, riot and civil disobedience. What seems inevitable, though, is that, notwithstanding the strictures of the Human Rights Act and the Convention on Human Rights to which the UK is a signatory, The House of Commons will have to debate capital punishment again. It is not so very long that the BBC, believing itself to be part of the legislature apparently, balloted, via the Today” programme, for a Listeners` Private Members` Bill”. To the horror of the programme`s orchestrators the public voted massively for legislation to allow individuals to use whatever force was necessary, up to and including the use of weapons, to protect their property and their families from intruders! This did not please the intellectuals” of the Beeb but some lessons are never learned, it seems. In its infinite wisdom the coalition government has created a petition site to allow the electorate to vote to trigger debates upon specific issues in the Commons. It was inevitable that heading that popular demand for an airing would be Capital Punishment and Membership of the European Union. The resulting votes, if they take place, will not, of course, be binding upon the government or worth a row of beans. Which renders the entire exercise completely pointless.
Having hightailed it back from mainland Europe to deal with the recall of parliament and the Riots debate the Cameron family headed West to try to rebuild a holiday for the kids on the coast of North Cornwall in the rain. Life in No.10 is not easy and Dad found himself trekking back to Town to chair committees relevant to the developing climax to the situation in Libya. I was one of those who advocated our intervention at the very beginning. I voted for it and I believe the decision to have been, on humanitarian grounds, right and just. Only time will tell whether or not the demise of the Gaddafi regime will lead to democracy in Libya or whether, for example, an Iranian style form of alternative despotism fills the political vacuum but the signs are, as I write, at least moderately promising. I hope that Samantha Cameron and her children will forgive the head of the family for his view that in stormy water the Captain of the ship needs to be on the bridge. Husbands and wives choose to support their parliamentary spouses but, as the Gales know from our own experience, politics can be very hard on young children.
And war can be very cruel to the families of our servicemen and women. This month the curtain has come down on the sad corteges that have wound their way through the streets of Royal Wootton Basset as the dignified people of that little town have turned out to pay their respects to the return home of the bodies of the fallen. With the transfer of flights from RAF Lyneham to Brize Norton and the handing over of the flags that have too frequently been flown at half mast an era for one town has ended. Sadly, though, it will not be the end of the repatriation of the remains of those who have given their lives in the service of our country and the families of those men and women will still find themselves left having to pick up the pieces of shattered family life. In that context the sacrifices made by politicians are insignificant.
The troubles on the streets of the United Kingdom and the inevitable and all-pervasive media coverage of those events masked the passing of another anniversary. It was fifty years ago that, on August 13th 1961, the Antifaschistischer Schitzwall, better known as the Berlin Wall”, was built. Between that time and the day (November 9th 1989) when the wall finally came down some 1200 people lost their lives trying to break out from the oppression of the Soviet Union. There is now a wall-free generation that may find it harder to understand that freedom, wherever in the world it is being fought for, costs lives.
Talking of walls, has Milipede Junior seen the writing? His holiday reading is reported to have included Leadership on the line – staying alive through the dangers of leading”, Fault Lines” and The Last Campaign”. Big brother David has returned to the headlines again with an accusation of Centre Parc snobbery” levelled against those who look down upon this particular brand of holiday camper. Milipede Senior and his brood have no qualms at all about enjoying the delights of Centre Parc. In France.
At a hearing relating to wrongful dismissal a former governor of the Tower of London regaled the tribunal with tales of cannabis, bullying and wild women. It seems that the Crown Jewels were on display at night as well as during the day.
Sally Mrs Speaker” Bercow has received her first taste of rejection by the electorate. The Labour supporting parliamentary hopeful made the arguably unwise decision to join Jedward and other minor celebrities” in the grim Big Brother House, only to find herself after much adverse publicity as the first of the inmates to be voted out of the asylum.
The Prime Minister`s view from Downing Street out across Horseguards Parade was enhanced briefly during the rehearsals for the Olympic Beach Volleyball tournaments. The game received little coverage and the participants, widely reported, enjoyed even less.
In the United States, with a Standard & Poors credit rating downgraded from its traditional triple-A status, Lily Tomlin indicates that things are going to get a lot worse before they get worse”. Spain, meanwhile, on the basis of serious disturbances on the labour market”, is afforded the right to ban immigrant Romanian workers. So much for the rulebook then. Free movement of labour” within the EU is, it seems, alright for some but not for others.
With constabularies facing spending reductions and strapped for cash it is comforting to know that in three years the Met Police has spent £29.5 million out of a national total of £82 million on hiring interpreters to assist with the 300 languages that, between them, are now used by the country`s less law-abiding community.
In September a Tory Eurosceptics Group will hold its first meeting convened by the Prime Minister`s former media chief, George Eustace MP. The group’s aims will be to reverse the process of ever-closer union” and to provide support and helpful advice to government”. Shades of I am from the Inland Revenue and I am here to help you…….”
Sloppy grammar will, in the future, cost GCSE students one-in-ten marks. This new” policy, which of course was the norm when most of us were growing up, will be applied initially to those sitting English language and English literature papers. If this startling innovation proves successful it may be extended to embrace history and geography as well but as 159 State schools this year failed to enter any candidates for history exams at all that is likely to have only a modest impact.
Schools do have a great deal to worry about. At Sandbach, in Cheshire, seven year old Ellie May Wilkins has had the Vaseline that she uses for dry lips confiscated. The education authority tells us that we have to be 100% certain that medication is safe”.
And during the riots former Labour Minister Hazel Blears generated the memorable why are these children not in school” line. Could be, of course, because August falls in the middle of the school summer holidays!
Children have forgotten how to climb trees. At Newbury, in Berkshire, a tree-surgeon is giving lessons in the lost art. Oak, Sycamore, Ash and Apple are good for climbing. Willow and Horse Chestnuts are bad. And for the real enthusiasts The Vyne National Trust centre in Basingstoke is offering tree parties”. `Elf `n Safety will be tearing their hair but all is not lost on the absurd regulation front. In Tunbridge Wells, no less, the Amber Twirler Majorettes have been banned from twirling during a town-centre recruitment drive because they do not have two million poundsworth of public liability insurance. The troop`s leader, Samantha” was described as amazed” but the fearless war reporter that unearthed this gem was also told that a member of staff will be in touch on their return from annual leave”. In the meantime, twirling is off the menu.
The enforcement brigade will also be gratified to know that a barman in a London pub refused to serve alcoholic drinks to two ladies who had already purchased soft drinks for their kids on the grounds that it is inappropriate to drink in front of children”.
H&S is alive and well north of the Border. The Royal Marines who took on and defeated Somali pirates, participating in the Edinburgh Festival, were required to take training from an industrial rope access firm” in order that the counter-piracy team from HMS Montrose, used to abseiling with barely gloved hands, might better understand how to slide down ropes. They were also required to arrest, rather than to shoot, the pirates.
The milk firm, Dairy Crest, has confiscated milk crates from Wychwood Primary School in Oxford. Intakes of pupils have used the crates as playground equipment, without incident, for fifteen years. But milk crates are not toys and Health and Safety require that they should not be used as such”.
Holy Trinity church in Aldershot has fallen foul of ecclesiastical law. The Wardens will have to find five thousand pounds to re-locate the original Victorian font alongside the new baptism pool” because it is, apparently, unlawful to have two places of baptism” in one church. With glorious understatement the vicar says that this might not be the best use of limited funds”.
Faced with the charge that a public lavatory located on Folkestone seafront has had its lights on for ten years, day and night, a spokesman says It is possible that the cleaners left the lights on” which does rather beg the question when were the lavatories last cleaned”!
Perhaps the most compelling and moving image of the month was the dignified demeanour of Taig Jahoor whose twenty-one year old son, Haroon, was killed by mindless thugs during the riots. By speaking out, softly but very publicly, against reprisal Mr. Jahoor almost certainly prevented further violence and bloodshed and in doing so showed a kind of courage that those responsible for his son`s death will probably never comprehend.