Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?
The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.
It’s a clever campaign and an example for the UK government, whose communications have been poor at best during the greatest health crisis for a century.
Unfortunately, though, Derbyshire Constabulary’s interpretation of the UK government’s COVID-19 regulations has been, to quote from the Constable Savage sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News, overzealous. There’s no ban on using the car to get to the start of your dog walk. That drive may avoid walking in busy crowds.
Let’s hope Derbyshire police are as vigilant against burglars as they are against people walking their dogs.
A difficult balance
The police do have a difficult challenge. Last weekend, the country was horrified by images of crowds of people flocking to Snowdonia, the Peak District and other national parks. Rural communities aren’t equipped to cope with hordes of people needing treatment for COVID-19. It’s right to stop people from London piling into a camper van and heading for Wales, Scotland and the Peak District. But policing in Great Britain relies on consent. And here Derbyshire went beyond what the regulations actually said. This tweet from @iaincollins sums it up well:
Overstepping the mark like this risks losing public support for the critical need for measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. As former government minister David Gauke said on Twitter:
“This is badly misjudged. People should maintain social distancing, which is what these people are doing. We need to maintain public support for fundamental behaviour change which requires the authorities to focus on genuinely bad behaviour.
It goes without saying that the public needs to take act sensibly. Those crowds last weekend shocked many. No sensible person would drive hundreds of miles in a camper van during the crisis. If we don’t all act responsibly, we will all suffer from stricter controls. We may lose the right to go for that bike ride or run. That would be a dark day.
Britain has left the European Union. The fight is over.
In truth, the fight ended before the referendum in June 2016. Years before. For decades, British governments believed in membership of the EU but did nothing to encourage popular support for it. The first instinct of struggling governments – such as John Major’s in the 1990s – was to pick a fight with Brussels. The creators of Yes Minister instinctively understood this – Jim Hacker became PM in that classic comedy series after leading a campaign against the Euro sausage. An earlier episode railed against European computer standards.
So I was in no doubt in 2016 that the referendum could well be lost. When our European chief executive asked me that February what the outcome would be, I said I feared the UK would vote to leave.
Yet I fervently hoped it wouldn’t. Days before, I spent time in Luxembourg with colleagues from all the major EU nations. Like many, I work with people from a host of nations, and have learned so much from this multi-nation and multi-cultural interchange. It feels the most natural thing in the world.
It wasn’t always like this. Growing up in the 1970s, as Britain joined the then European Economic Community, I sympathised with the view that we were abandoning our Commonwealth cousins by joining the EEC. Peter Hennessy’s superb history of Britain in the early 1960s, Winds of Change, recounts the agonies of Harold Macmillan’s bid to join, rebuffed by General de Gaulle. (On reflection, perhaps the general’s non was right.) The epic waste of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) offended every instinct – as taxpayers spent billions buying unwanted cheese and milk, enriching French farmers. But we were late to the party, and couldn’t reasonably complain that the kitty had already been spent. As an 11 year old hostile to the EEC during the 1975 referendum, I proudly taped the leave leaflet to the inside of my desk at Lakeside School in Cardiff. (My friends were far more interested in whether Bay City Rollers would get to Number 1 in the charts.)
I spent a year studying European Communities law at university in 1983, which wasn’t my most inspiring subject. (But it came in useful years later.) In time, I came to see Britain’s membership of the EU as valuable for us and our continental friends. The UK played an increasingly influential role in Europe, helping the continent chart a path that blended citizens’ rights with encouraging economic development. And we won critical concessions, such as avoiding membership of the ill-conceived euro. (The common currency has arguably been better news for British citizens travelling across the EU than it has been for many people in the euro-zone, with its disastrous impact on the economies of so many nations.)
I voted remain. I condemned the lies of the leave campaign, and the appalling way Corbyn’s Labour Party failed to campaign wholeheartedly for Britain to remain in the referendum. It was a tragedy that Labour chose Corbyn as leader just as the battle for Britain’s European future began. But as Boris Johnson won his historic election victory in December 2019, I felt curious relief. I didn’t vote for this deeply flawed politician. But the result settled the biggest issue facing Britain.
How will this end? None of us knows. We can but hope that Johnson raises his game, and becomes a man of destiny. If the UK is to survive and flourish, he needs to play a blinder. He needs to create a new sense of national unity that starts to heal the schism with Scotland, and heals the rest of the nation. Britain is certainly big enough to do well outside the EU, but our politicians – of all parties – need to do far better than their dismal performance over the past five years.
We are still Europeans. We travel far more than our grandparents did. As Britain’s EU odyssey ends, I recall and cherish our family friendships across our continent. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mum and Dad met Charles, Rosel, Werner, Sabine, Uschi, Helmut and others. Those friendships were born in the town twinnings between Wales and Germany. It is so moving to reflect that our countries were at war less than 15 years earlier. But there was a compelling wish to build bridges across the years. One of my favourite moments of 2019 was meeting Werner, Sabine and their grandson in Cardiff and reminiscing about shared memories and values We mourned Britain’s departure from the EU, but agreed that friendships are deeper than political structures. Britain remains at the heart of Europe.
Postscript: I wrote the article below in 1995 after a lively dinner discussion with the then editor of The Independent. It reads like an elegy for a lost world. But pleasingly Wales now has the Senedd that the article envisaged 25 years ago.
Europe – a dangerous obsession
Rob Skinner, March 1995
British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.
No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.
The Euro-debate is almost entirely the preserve of the political professionals. Europe and its future currency is for most of the British people the non-issue of the decade. It rarely if ever puts in an appearance in public bars and at dinner party tables.
If the loudly debated referendum on the single currency took place tomorrow, Britain’s polling stations would almost certainly be lonely places as the electorate used their time to fulfil other, more pressing needs.
The media star a heavy responsibility for this sorry saga. Radio 4’s Today programme, in particular, has been dominated by Euro-obsessed talking heads for what seems an eternity, while the surfeit of Sunday political punditry on British television finds Europe a lazily easy choice for discussion.
Yet the obsession simply confirms what everyone outside Westminster’s cloistered circles has long suspected: that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and incapable of tackling the issues that their constituents care and worry about.
Most people see Europe as a distraction. They long for a government and opposition that tackle the real issues of the day, such as unemployment, crime, rising taxes and the sense that Britain has become a less caring, more ugly society. For many, the great fear is not the loss of the UK’s economic sovereignty but the loss of something much nearer to home – their jobs.
None of these issues is being tackled. Instead, a sterile, futile debate dominates, which looks for all the world like an endless battle between two foolish lovers. The weakest, most enfeebled government in living memory seeks to impose the very thing it lacks – authority – on the country. A cynicism fired by years of misrule is now raging out of control, threatening Britain’s self confidence as a nation.
As a Welshman, I see Europe as an opportunity, not a threat. I believe in a Europe of many countries and cultures – not just a Europe of nation states. The doomed debate that has riven the Conservatives is very English rather than British. It speaks eloquently of a nation uncertain of itself, suspicious of outsiders and nervous of its smaller neighbours within the United Kingdom.
This is high irony. How could the dominant tribe in the British Isles, the English, have become so fearful, so lacking in vision of confidence that they have largely destroyed Britain’s standing on its own continent?
The crying shame is that Europe is important. There must be a proper debate about Britain’s future. We should be looking for ways to put right the failings of the democratic process in the European Union and within these islands. And we must be open and humble enough, for once, to recognise that the United Kingdom might profitably learn from democratic experiences beyond these shores.
John Major has sought sanctuary behind an ugly word – subsidiarity. Yet this strange and unfriendly term signals the way to make Europe and Britain more democratic. The principle is that decisions should be made as locally as possible. Yet in the UK, under John Major’s desperate leadership, the concept has been hijacked, and given a new, sinister meaning. That mother – the Mother of Parliaments – knows best. Yet who truly places trust in the traditional Westminster system in 1995?
Subsidiarity needs a new, more attractive name. The Welsh word agosrwydd means nearness, and has been suggested by David Morris MEP and Martin Caton as a far better epithet.*
If the English aren’t ready to accept a Welsh word for what might be the most important democratic principle of the dying years of the millennium, then nearness will serve just as well. It is a compelling sentiment, an idea whose time has come. The European Union is here to stay, and Britain’s future is inextricably linked to it. For non-state regions and countries like Wales, Scotland, Baden Würtemberg and Catalunya, being part of a wider family is a historic development that arguably makes the break up of nation states like the UK less likely. But it is only less likely if the nearness principle puts greater power in the hands of regional governments such as a Welsh Senedd.
John Major talks of a triple lock within the burgeoning Northern Ireland peace process. In a wider concept, three links also hold the key to unlocking the eternal dilemma that has dogged Britain for a quarter of a century: regional identity, our British identity and the European dimension. Only by creating harmony between all three, and recognising their legitimacy, will we ever escape this constitutional conundrum.
In this anniversary year , of all years, we must look back to 1945. Not only to commemorate the huge sacrifices made to secure our generation’s freedom and future. But just as nobly to recall how the European ideal was born, in the ruins of a continent that had allowed evil and hatred to carry all before it.
After Warsaw, Aschwitz and Dresden, reconciliation might have been expected to have taken decades to bear fruit. Yet amidst the tragedies of an unimaginable numbers of lives, the determination to forge a different Europe was born. Since those dawning days, the idea of Britain and Germany taking up arms against each other, or Belgium and France being overrun by a continental army, has become inconceivable.
Now the challenge for Britain’s politicians is to shake off their obsession and start treating Europe as something that is part of everyone’s lives. Votes can only be lost over this issue, not won, and it is time for Eurosceptic and Europhile alike to recognise the basic truth. The year of the last great second world war anniversaries would be an appropriate time for Britain belatedly to throw away the empty rhetoric and start to build a future for itself.
* A Europe of the Peoples – the European Union and a Welsh Parliament’ – ed John Osmond, Gomer Press 1994
Britain’s politicians will sleep more easily after this week. The interviewer they fear most, John Humphrys, is leaving Radio 4’s Today programme after 32 years.
Back in 1987, Margaret Thatcher was about to win her third term. People were starting to get concerned about global warming. And Radio 4’s Today programme had established itself as the show that set the nation’s agenda led by legendary broadcaster Brian Redhead.
I was a fan of Today from my early days. While school friends in the Seventies tuned in to Radio 1’s breakfast show, my bedside radio was set to Radio 4. I timed my morning routine to the schedule. I loved Redhead’s wit and the way he switched between caustic treatment of shifty politicians and kindness towards ordinary people who found themselves in the news.
John Humphrys quickly established himself as Redhead’s successor after Brian’s tragically early death in 1994. I thoroughly enjoyed his encounters with Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke in the 8.10am interview in the run up to the 1997 general election. The Conservatives were clearly going to lose by a landslide to Tony Blair’s New Labour but the two impresarios of the Tory party had a compelling presence that few current politicians of any party can match.
My family shares similar roots to the famous broadcaster. Like me, he was born in Cardiff, not far from my grandmother’s birthplace in Splott, and went to Cardiff High School – in its grammar school days, as did my father. (It had become a comprehensive by the time I started in 1975.) Like Mum and Dad, he started his journalism career on the Penarth Times. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Aberfan disaster in 1966, and later said that nothing in his career compared to the tragic landslide that overwhelmed the Welsh village school, killing 116 children and 28 adults.
For me, the most unforgettable Humphrys interview in recent years was the one that cost the job of his ultimate boss, BBC director-general George Entwistle, in 2012. Humphrys interviewed Entwistle at the height of the Jimmy Savile scandal. The BBC boss came across as utterly out of his depth and ill-informed. I described the interview in my blog as the director-general’s exit interview and so it proved: he resigned hours later.
John Humphrys is right to go now. He has been criticised as being out of touch with the times. That may be true – the 76 year presenter appeared uncomfortable with the understandable backlash against the fact that he and other male presenters are paid more than their female peers. And Today itself can feel heavy compared with the livelier offering from the BBC’s 5 Live breakfast show. But John Humphrys has been an essential part of the national debate over the past 32 years. I will miss my fellow Cardiffian on my drive to work.
This is my first blogpost for over two years. Have you missed me? I fell off the blogging bandwagon just after Britain voted for Brexit. I swapped the blog for the bike, and have been healthier as a result.
But I felt that I’d lost my voice. I’ve always loved writing, and blogging let me express myself, even if my wonderful Dad was the only person listening. So I’m back. I don’t know how long it will last but I wanted to record what has become a summer of wonder – the best in Britain since the scorched summer of 1976.
I mentioned Brexit earlier on, so it seems appropriate to combine politics and cycling in a photo. Earlier today, I cycled past Chequers, the prime minister’s country home in Buckinghamshire. The road up to Chequers from Butlers Cross is a steep one, but it seems easier after my summer of cycling. Chequers was given to the nation a century ago to allow its PMs a place for rest and recreation. It’s doubtful that Theresa May gained much rest there in recent weeks with her disastrous Brexit Cabinet showdown and President Trump’s visit. But I found it restful: after completing the climb from Butlers Cross, I always love the 18mph swoop down to Great Missenden.
I completed the 32 mile ride with the satisfaction of knowing I’d just completed 2,000 miles of cycling in 2018. That’s good preparation for Prudential Ride London next weekend. Watch this space!
Margaret Thatcher campaigns to keep Britain in the EEC, 1975
The Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
29 June 2016
Dear Mrs Gillan
Like many of your constituents, I am deeply concerned about the consequences of last week’s very narrow referendum vote to leave the EU, which you campaigned for.
We are already seeing major companies like HSBC and Visa saying they will move jobs from the UK to the continent if we lose access to the European Single Market, which Margaret Thatcher played a major role in creating. The leaders of the leave campaign such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have been quick to disown the pledges they made to win votes. The Conservative and Labour parties are in chaos, and the country is rudderless at our most critical moment as a nation for generations.
You, as our MP, have a great responsibility for helping save the country from disaster. I urge you to:
Demand that Parliament has to agree to any government decision to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.
Britain is a parliamentary democracy. Recent governments have accepted that vital matters affecting the nation such as going to war must be subject to a parliamentary approval, rather than royal prerogative exercised by the prime minister. Starting the process of withdrawal from the EU is just as important – and parliament must decide.
Only vote in favour of invoking article 50 when the UK government has determined what the future relationship with the EU should be, in agreement with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Like me, you were born in Cardiff, Wales. Unlike me, you have served as Secretary of State for Wales. As such, you must understand the vital need to preserve the United Kingdom. Keeping Scotland in the Union, preserving peace in Northern Ireland and maintaining the interests of Wales must be fundamental to the task of negotiating the right future for Britain in Europe. Millions will never forgive this government if it destroys Britain.
Demand that the UK maintains access to the European Single Market – including financial services
Many of your constituents work in financial services. London, the South East and the rest of the country will suffer countless job losses – and the City will be hugely disadvantaged – if UK banks lose the right to ‘passport’ their UK banking licences to the 30 countries in the EU and EEA. We have already seen HSBC and Visa say they will move jobs from the UK if this happens. This is not a game. The time for bluster and rhetoric is over – MPs have a responsibility. You will be held to account if you get this wrong.
Fight against hate speech and crimes
Millions of us are horrified at the way the referendum campaign fuelled xenophobia in Britain. We liked to think of our country as tolerant, embracing people no matter what their background. Yet leave campaigners have let a horrible genie out of the bottle. I’m appalled by the attacks on the Polish and Muslim communities, who have enriched the country. (How many of the thugs know that Polish refugee airmen helped to save us in the Battle of Britain?) It’s time to take action to end this hatred and punish those who fuel it.
Protect EU nationals working in the UK
Colleagues from other European countries working alongside me here in the UK have been in tears, taking the referendum rhetoric and the result as meaning they are not wanted here. This is appalling. They make a huge contribution to our country and economy. They are our friends as well as colleagues. I call on you now to urge ministers to guarantee that no one working here who come from other EU states will lose the right to work in the UK.
End the lies
The referendum campaign marked a new low in British political campaigns. Politicians are not famous for telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – but never before have we seen so many of them telling outright lies and refusing to stop when exposed. The £350m claim was the most outrageous example, condemned by the independent UK Statistics Authority as plain wrong. It’s time to ban politicians from telling lies. And the thought of one of those liars becoming prime minister is totally unacceptable.
25 years ago today, Margaret Thatcher resigned as prime minister. She bowed to the inevitable after her cabinet finally rebelled against her autocratic rule.
I blogged at length about Britain’s first woman prime minister when she died in 2013. I titled that post ‘the woman who changed Britain’ – which she did, for both good and ill. She was a force of nature, unlike almost all of her successors. Only Tony Blair came close.
I love France and the French, and grieve for them and everyone else who died in this assault on humanity. But I won’t be changing my profile photo. I feel equally sad for those who have been savagely killed in Beirut, on the Russian airliner, on the beaches of Tunisia and across the Middle East. And those who have perished fleeing the death cults of the Middle East.
I just wish we could find some way to combat such brutal, medieval tribes that wish to defeat those who hold different values. The sad truth is that the western powers will most likely respond in a way that makes things worse, not better.
It’s easy to change your profile photo. That’s not to say that doing so has no meaning. I’m sure it will bring some comfort to the people of France, a country that millions of us love and cherish. But I’d rather see brilliant minds across Europe thinking how we can turn the tide of hatred. The west has a grim record of intervening in the Middle East without thinking or caring about the consequences, from Britain, France and Israel’s 1956 Suez adventure through to the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Please let Aylan be the last victim. Photo: Reuters
This tragic image shook Europe into action. It shook an unthinking and uncaring continent into thinking about the tragedies unfolding every day, and rethinking its prejudices. Aylan Kurdi, we will honour your memory and make sure your short life has a historic legacy.
At last, the likes of Britain’s Daily Mail realised that the people fleeing to Europe were refugees desperate to escape death and persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, rather than opportunists seeking European welfare. I applaud Germany and Austria for their warm-hearted welcome for thousands of refugees. How I wish that David Cameron’s government could have shown a fraction of that humanity. How petty and uncaring these millionaire politicians appear as they turn their backs on the tragic flow of desperate people who simply want a safe future for their families. And how shocking it is that the London Standard newspaper thought Eurostar disruption was the story, rather than the plight of desperate refugees.
Over 40 years ago, a very different Conservative government welcomed to Britain some 30,000 Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by murderous dictator Idi Amin. The new arrivals made a significant contribution to the life and economy of Britain.
It has been hugely encouraging to see the positive response on social media to a more human approach to the crisis. That most intelligent commentator, Mathew Parris, said: “What kind of primitives have we become that we need to see a drowned person before we acknowledge to ourselves that people are drowning? Did we not know, had we not read, that migrant children drowned?” So true, yet sometimes one stark, appalling image transforms opinions. The best solution is surely to make the refugees’ homelands safe for them to stay or return – but over a decade of Western military interventions in the region has corroded our reputation.
How sad that the summer of tragedy on Europe’s beaches saw the death of Sir Nicholas Winton, ‘Britain’s Schindler’. Then as now, Britain was slow to help people desperate to flee death and persecution. Then as now, bureaucracy was a killer. Yet the wonderful Winton secured safe passage in 1939 for over 600 children from Czechoslovakia. The story has an echo in Mr Gruber in the wonderful film Paddington, with its echoes of the Kindertransport. How apt and poignant that German and Austria have been quicker than Britain to welcome the 2015 counterparts of the families of 1939.
Britain elected a new parliament today. I always feel humble and emotional when I vote. Men and women have died for democracy – and I recall those long ago battles when I place a cross on a ballot paper.
Queuing to vote, 2015
As I write this, the BBC’s exit poll suggests the Tories have done better than expected. We shall see.
As we took Owen with us to the polling station in Chalfont St Giles, I explained that his paternal great grandmothers both waited a long time to vote – because women were deprived of equal votes with men until 1928. I think my dad’s mother was 38 before she voted in 1929. Her last vote would have been in the 1992 election.
If you didn’t vote, don’t complain if you don’t like the government that results from today’s election.
PS: I turned the car radio on for the 8am news headlines as we went to vote. The main story on BBC Radio 5 Live was tomorrow’s 70th anniversary of VE Day. An important day from his grandparents’ early days.