How we see ourselves takes up a lot of time and column inches. It is necessary – and occasionally challenging – to read the view of others.
Richard Wolffe in his piece in today’s Guardian, Oh, Britain: the chasm between myth and reality keeps on growing, nails it
Today the Brits are worried they look like Italians, with new prime ministers every few months or weeks.
In fact they should be worried they look like Austrians, sitting in a jewel-encrusted museum piece at the heart of a once-great empire, arguing among themselves about nationalists and immigrants.
British prime ministers used to come and go like vintage wines. Every few years there might be a classic. Now they come and go like utility bills: painful and entirely forgettable.
Do I agree with Steven Pinker’s optimistic world view that humans are living longer and better? Well, yes and no.
When the FT’s Henry Mance, in a recent interview with Pinker (behind the FT’s paywall), remarks that news headlines suggest the opposite, Pinker argues that
journalism is a non-random sample of the worst things that are happening on earth at any given time. When you look at the world through the lens of data, rather than events, it’s much more positive.
Well, up to a point!
Later in the interview, Pinker suggests that US politics needs more scientists. Mance points out that some of the least trustworthy politicians are doctors, to which Pinker replies,
Doctors are not scientists! Doctors are professional descendants of mediaeval barber surgeons. There’s a surprising number of doctors who don’t think scientifically.
Hmmm. I know at least one doctor who would disagree (but then Pinker in making his argument ignores the historical distinction between physician and surgeon).
. . . and although I’m not at all sure UK politics needs more scientists – Thérèse Coffey was once a scientist – UK politicians should perhaps listen more to the scientists (read Kate Bingham’s The Long Shot).
In a piece in the Guardian yesterday, Vernon Bogdanor reflected on how history may judge Johnson’s period in office, recalling Churchill’s remark that “history would be kind to him since he would be writing it”, and suggesting that
Johnson, an admirer of Churchill, may feel the same, and will no doubt seek to polish his record. He should be allowed to do so, free of the vindictiveness and self-righteousness which so often disfigures the liberal left. Loss of the premiership is punishment enough.
There are three problems with this.
The first is that however much you polish a turd, it is still a turd.
Second, it will never be a case of ‘allowing’ Johnson to polish his record. He’s never felt that he has needed anyone’s permission for anything. And so he is already hard at work. You only had to listen to his farewell speech this morning.
And last, why should loss of the premiership be punishment enough? Johnson is a conman – entitled, slippery with truth and facts, a rule breaker, and above all indulged: by his family, his friends, his party, the media, the public. As Bogdanor notes, the central weakness of his administration was Johnson’s belief that “rules are for others, not for him.”
The failure effectively to call him out has got us to where we are – we should not be precious about holding him to account.
Normally it is the pretender to the crown who pledges loyalty – but then perhaps the Prime Minister simply needs to reassure himself that all is well.
I wouldn’t be too sure.
The trouble with parties is that there is always a party organiser. A party simply doesn’t happen without an invitation. A gathering – if you stretch the truth a little – may just occur.
This is why Downing Street and its supporters have been so particular about their language? Their gatherings, they keep suggesting, were not premeditated.
Under the lockdown rules meeting more than the prescribed number was simply to risk a relatively light fine under a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) but to organise and host a party means a fine of a different magnitude.
So whether or not a gathering was actually a party is important. We, the public, may have little trouble in distinguishing the two but precision is critical when it comes to law.
The most recent revelations suggest that emails were sent inviting people to the ‘gathering’ where, in Conor Burns’s immortal words, the Prime Minister was “ambushed with a cake” . . . before he later changed the story and said there was no cake. And the emails came from where? And who brought the cake? Not all parties have cake but most birthday cakes end up at parties.
So is this why the Met has suddenly put the brakes on Sue Gray’s report? Because, as always, it’s all in the numbers. Like the difference between £200 and £10,000.