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61-91-21 – Timeline of triumph and tragedy

Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

1961. Berlin. The Soviet forces laid out barbed wire across the road in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Their chiefs later admitted that if the Americans, British or French had steamrollered the wire down, they wouldn’t have replaced it.

But the Allies did nothing. A green light for the construction of the Berlin Wall, the most visible, miserable symbol of the Cold War. One indecisive moment prompting almost three decades of the divided city.

1991. The world. We’d won. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union collapsed and all the money cut off from the communist states from Cuba to Africa. Russia entered a decade of mishandled misery under Yeltsin, George H Bush coordinated a global, united alliance to kick Saddam out of Kuwait.

Western liberal democracy had emerged as the prevailing power in the world. The UK and US felt confident enough to dispose of the strong-arm leaders Margaret Thatcher and the same George H Bush for moderate, next-generation leaders Clinton and Major.

Unfortunately they forgot the words of President Thomas Jefferson, abridged to “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

A terrible level of complacency set in very quickly. The Russians were now our friends. All the threats came from the Middle East, but we could easily contain them, like we did with Saddam.

British Intelligence defunded the Russian monitoring office. Our agents were no longer required to learn Russian. NATO and the EU stepped up efforts to expand their membership across the former Soviet states, now that Russia was no longer a threat.

At the same time, western liberal democracies’ insatiable appetite for cheap goods and lower energy prices increased the traffic of trade and corporate partnerships with – or rather from – ever-more stirring China. Tiananmen Square had revolted us, but not enough to cancel the Christmas decorations.

As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, our complacency and arrogance was confronted in the most horrific fashion.

9/11 in New York was the first of many attacks across the west. London, Glasgow, Spain, France, Denmark, Germany followed. The response from George W Bush and Tony Blair were not-so skilfully coordinated responses.

They showed themselves to be very good at starting things, but very poor at finishing. Afghanistan (more of that in a moment), Iraq, Libya – the cheering on of the false Arab Spring. The removal of dictators and naïve belief that democracy would fill the void in tribal, feudal lands.

All the while, Russia had never stopped spying, never stopped planning and infiltrating. Developing its cyber capabilities and cleverly leveraging its armed forces. From a position of relative weakness, new leader and former KGB chief Vladimir Putin outfoxed every western leader as his stature and power base grew.

China’s deployment of capital and intelligence meant an equally ‘soft’ progress to inherit the crown of the world’s top dog. Cameron & Osborne’s ‘golden age’ initiative to feather the capitalists nests by doing deals with the faux-communist state must have provided hours of amusement in Beijing. Whilst the unregulated (forget de-regulated) British marketplace, offered not only the family silver of companies, but the controls of infrastructure, transport and energy. Roll up, roll up…

2021. The world. We’ve lost. Western liberal democracy has shown itself to be weak, divided and unwilling or unable to square up to the brutal rival ideologies.

The scenes from Afghanistan  over the last week or so have painted a painful picture for everyone directly associated with the war conducted over the last 20 years. Armed Services from all allied nations are asking, ‘what was the point?’. Once again, the country has proved its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’.

Thousands of allied deaths, goodness knowns how many thousands Afghan fatalities, mass displacement of people fleeing the violence. False promises, false hope, no coherent strategy. And a fantasy that we could somehow train and equip a domestic force to police its own state under the guidelines of our ways and values.

The lamentable performance of President Biden and the desperate, embarrassing narrative from the Johnson government show how far we have fallen down and short of what we once cherished. There were of course no easy answers or exit strategy from all this. And President Trump’s Taliban deal didn’t help matters.

But the only conclusion looking at the world as it stands right now is – dictatorship is the winning strategy. With no domestic audience to placate and no elections of substance to face, Russia and China are filling the power vacuum.

The Soviet disaster of the 80s in Afghanistan has been brushed aside as Russia keeps its embassy open and Putin’s team reach out to the Taliban. Masters of realpolitik as ever. While China and Iran weigh up their options either side of the wreckage.

Twenty years of piling up the debt burdens and staying one step ahead in the cyber warfare and manipulation have enabled both Putin and Xi to plant metaphorical bombs under the foundations of our societies.

But real bombs and bullets remain available. And the willingness of the west to fight back has been absent. The chaotic withdrawal from Kabul currently in progress follows Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine that went unpunished. Sanctions? The Kremlin refuses to tremble. China’s cancellation of ‘One Nation Two Systems’ in Hong Kong 27 years early has brought no backlash beyond words.

There will be nervousness in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan as American resolve appears wavering. Some will say this is no bad thing. Perhaps we should stop charging around the world, poking our noses in and insensitively imposing our will. Corporate pillaging is often as bad as the Nordic original.

Whatever happens, the west’s rhetoric needs to be matched by its deeds. The Cornwall summit earlier this year declared that ‘America is back’ and that liberal democracies must stand firm for their values and good influence in the world.

We are falling someway short on that. The coming months and years will show what our values truly are.

61 – dictatorship

91 – democracy

21 – dictatorship

51 – ?

Your servant,

MC

The Fraying of the Thin Blue Line

The police are the public and the public are the police. The words of Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. The idea that policing was by consent. Maintenance of law & order through cooperation with the public, on the basis of mutual respect.

And it’s a model that was unique, based on trust and not fear. An unarmed social force for public good. It has survived for the last two centuries largely intact, exported among Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

I think my interest is well-known. My Dad, uncle and several cousins were/are serving officers. I know this side of the thin blue line.

The probity of the police has been questioned before. Often on the basis of enforcing political decisions by the powers that be. Certainly during the miner’s strike of 84/85 there were voices of disapproval for the conduct of some officers – although the provocation was significant too.

One of my favourite memories from that period was one of my cousins who swapped their police uniform with a miner for his coal-digging gear as they both went to New Years Eve parties in fancy dress as each other. Brilliant. That’s how to do it.

Over the last year the challenges have been – yes that word again – unprecedented. Enforcing a gentle form of martial law in a freedom-loving democracy is a fiendishly difficult task. Some over-reaction and under-reaction were inevitable, as the various forces grappled to set the right tone an approach.

Unfortunately this has exposed some of the deeply engrained inconsistencies between forces, teams and individual officers. And both the police and public have been poorly served by the authorities.

Theresa May cut funding, cut numbers of officers and slashed budgets as part of the Conservative government’s austerity since 2010. Most staggeringly of all, half of the nation’s police stations were closed. 667 front-line buildings where the pubic could walk in and talk with real police officers were gone.

Don’t worry – you can email them, text them. Leave a voicemail on the never-answered phone lines. No, no, no.

The link between police and community (growing fractious in some areas for many years) was eroded further. Crimes were counted but not investigated. No resources available. Things have to get really bad before we’ll send someone out.

Many police hated this. It wasn’t what they signed up for. They joined to do their duty, for public service, to make the streets of the nation safe. They weren’t tech wizards or social media hacks. They were there to get out and among them. It’s a tough job. Not everybody can do it. I couldn’t. but the new wave of policing was to be inclusive, modern and socially coherent.

No complaints about any of that. But sometimes you have to face down and handle a vicious mob bent on violence and destruction. Your equality leaflets won’t be much use then.

It’s true that on the other side, some more bad apples got through too. Heavy-handed, judgemental and clearly loving their position of power too much. Rude, arrogant and part of the problem, not the solution.

So, back to the Metropolitan Police, almost 200 years on from Peel’s creation. The scenes last night at Clapham Common were dreadful. Not what we expect from our Bobbies.

The Met Police are paranoid about race. Terrified of causing offence ever since Scarman and the Stephen Lawrence enquiry branded them as “institutionally racist”. In the years since, the pendulum appears to have swung so far the other way, that any sense of equity before the justice in the streets and courts has become a matter of pot luck.

The Black Lives Matters protests in London last year were policed in the most softly, softly manner imaginable. The latter violence, intimidation and damage to property were approached in that same spirit of containment – to avoid escalating matters. I have no problem with that approach. Generally allowing protest to go ahead is a tenet of our democracy.

However, this happened in the middle of Covid restrictions, where people were prevented from travelling outside their area, gathering in numbers, getting too close to each other. The police response? Officers symbolically taking the knee before the crowds. And turning a blind eye to the Covid breaches, in light of the heightened emotional impact.

Now – look at the events this week. A young woman kidnapped and murdered from a walk along the streets of our capital. Thankfully rare in its extreme outcome, sadly common enough for women to live in fear each day of their lives.

The proposed vigil was not permitted by the Met. Nevertheless many women felt strongly enough to go out and make their protest and remembrance anyway.

So – did we see the same softly, softly approach? Containment? Care to avoid escalating matters? Turning  blind eye in response to the heightened emotional impact? No chance. Condemnation of the approach taken has been universal from all sides of the political spectrum. Even tough talking Priti Patel will have trouble defending this.

Whilst Cressida Dick, head of the Met Police has been exposed once again as hopelessly out of her depth, promoted beyond her capabilities – but crucially fulfilling the quota for equality with the ‘service’.

I understand the importance of diversity – particularly the visible diversity (colour, race, gender and/or sexuality) amid and at the top of our institutions. If that’s at the expense of competence and capability – the price is too high. Crusty old establishment figure Lord Scarman pulled no punches in his report on the riots of the early 80s and won the respect of the black community by his engagement and integrity.

Clapham last night exposes the underfunding, muddled thinking, poor leadership, inconsistency of applying the law, and a lack of ground-level common sense management. With outcomes that infuriate all sides.

The police are no longer the public. And the public are no longer the police. And that is bad news for everyone.

Your servant,

MC

Valentine’s Day love from a singleton

Do you remember those phrases coined about the various household types?  

‘Dinks’ were the couples who were Double Income No Kids. ‘Skiers’ were the older ones that were Spending the Kids Inheritance.

Alongside the Dinks were the Sinks – Single Income No Kids. That’s the group of us who tread the path by choice or otherwise, of a single life. This provokes various questions and assumptions as we mingle with our coupled friends, family and workmates.

Firstly – can we ever be really happy? Can a life be content without a significant other? Next, we are top of the list to work the unsociable shift, with no partner/kids to get back for. Also, that sneaking suspicion that we are living the best life, free of commitments – an endless round of carefree days and crazy nights.

To state the blooming obvious – we are not all the same. Some suffer whilst others thrive. Some are permanently on the lookout for a potential partner; others are comfortable with their own company. And some of us can’t quite make our minds up. Do we want to be in a relationship or not?

I’ve known some of the benefits of the single life. This has included dropping out of the mainstream for years at a time, living, working and travelling across the world. Hopping between rented flat & house shares with a myriad of housemates over the years. It’s also meant no fights for the remote control, no compromise on meal choices, holiday destinations or wallpaper dilemmas.

I’ve never had the full-time responsibility for the welfare of a child. I’ve enjoyed being ‘Uncle Mark’ and never regretted not being ‘Dad’. That happy state has the twin effect of prolonging your adolescence (I think I’m on my 4th now) and maintaining that twinkle in the eye that enables a connexion with other generations.

Spiritual ones will recognise the progress of the soul across the astral plane, with individuals from different generations finding empathy. I’ve often felt my mental age to be anywhere between 10 – 70 at any one time. Older bones, young outlook.

My time in Thailand introduced me to their charming philosophy that the middle-aged ones are the learners. Specifically, there are lessons to be learned from the elders’ experience and lessons also (perhaps re-learned) from the young.

Being single does provide opportunities for exploration on your own terms if that’s your thing. You can pursue passions without seeking permission or validation from anyone else. Your time, money and focused energy are all yours to spend as you wish.

There does come a time however when all this freedom can lose its flavour. Whether wholesome or hedonistic, the best of life’s pleasures are usually those shared. Children want their parents to see and applaud their achievements. Some never grow out of that need for parental approval.

Team victories are all the sweeter when the cup is lifted as a group, with hugs and high-fives in celebration. Even the solo athlete or solitary artist enjoys sharing their moment of triumph with those nearest.

But even then – when the music stops, the lights go out and everyone heads for the door, the singleton is going home alone. It’s here where the divide within the group becomes apparent. Some feel relief to get back to their solitude, others wish the evening could go on a little longer and some feel the crushing loneliness enveloping them again.

I’ve felt all of those. Whilst I relish the time alone and the sense of derring-do when travelling solo, there are always those moments. There have been so many times when I’ve been far, far away in some foreign land and turned a corner to see a breath-taking desert, mountain, forest, lake, cityscape, ocean view – and I’ve had nobody to turn to and say, ‘Look at that’. And when a hard day of walking is over, nobody there to share the triumph*

In everyday life – a simple thing makes you laugh – but nobody to laugh with. Listening to a song, watching a movie, eating a meal. All very do-able and enjoyable solo. But when those songs, movies and meals stack up in their thousands alone, they too can lose their flavour.

There is a resilience, built up over the years. And for me, an ebullient will to remain forward looking and optimistic. It doesn’t mean I’m insufferably cheerful or in any way sunny to a fault. Far from it.

I have known the lowest of days and nights. When these dark corners of the mind are familiar to you, it is perhaps part of your destiny to go there again from time to time.

It is ultimately a choice. We may bemoan the fates for conspiring against us, circumstances for wrong-footing us or play the ‘blame game’ on others. A whole chorus of ‘if onlys’ to accompany the sad symphony. But it’s only our own selves that can live our lives. Walking through that door. Making that phone call. Sending that message. Reaching out. It’s hard. It’s risky. And it makes you vulnerable, with no guarantees.

So it’s Valentine’s Day again. I wish joy and happiness to all couples celebrating. Plus a special wish for all my fellow singletons to find happiness, whatever that means to you.

Your servant,

MC

* My recent foreign travels were shared with a friend. From this I can confirm some adventures are indeed better shared (see http://www.MarkandLucas.com)

[A version of this post appeared previously]

Tiers 4 Fears (A Covid Christmas)

So that’s it. This miserable year will now be concluded with the inevitable headline “Christmas is cancelled”.

Some will gamely say “Christmas can’t be cancelled” because we feel it innately and make it ourselves. I know what they mean. But even in the best of years, the festive season serves as the reward for making it through our busy times. Some downtime in our busy, stressful lives. And a special, dedicated time – essential for catching up with friends and family whom we may not have seen for months.

That’s in the best of years. In this worst of years, many have lifted tearful, weary eyes to look for the beacon of Christmas approaching. As Charles Dickens beautifully said in A Christmas Carol,

“I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Now even Christmas has been snatched away. For many, there are feelings of profound sadness. For some who have suffered badly already, this may prove a fatal blow. Depression, addiction, hopelessness were already unwelcome guests in the dark corners of troubled minds. Some will not survive much more of this.

Millions are facing bankruptcy, death by other illnesses, loss of hard-established businesses, mental health breakdowns. They can see no way to avoid losing their homes, their savings and a permanent shackling to debt they will never escape.

There is also anger. Anger at the incompetence. Anger at the inconsistency. Anger at the insincerity, hypocrisy and self-preservation practiced by those who purport to represent out best interests. Crocodile tears, mock-shock and fake angst whilst the cameras are rolling, retreat into cushioned, care-free lives once they are offline.

I’ve had some sympathy for officials during this year, as this unprecedented (yes that word again) set of events unfolded.

But that evaporated when I heard this same government is suppressing the details of Exercise Cygnus (a 2016 exercise for pandemic planning), It was shelved as too expensive, too complicated and too scary to contemplate. The British Medical Journal has more details if you’re interested.

I’m saddened that this is also the latest right/wrong polarised national (and international) debate. You with me or against me. I’m right and you’re stupid. It follows the pattern of the Brexit and Black Lives Matter debates. It seems we can no longer accept others have a different view.

If you support the measures being taken, you are labelled as a blind, unquestioning, submissive ‘sheep’. If you question the measures you are labelled ‘anti-vax, conspiracy theorist loony’

Which fits the game plan of those in charge and those making money of course. Divide and profit. Divert attention by getting the masses to fight among themselves. And let them watch football and Strictly to keep them entertained.

I am among those questioning. There are growing numbers of us who – whilst acknowledging the hideous nature of this virus and its impact – are equally concerned about the enshrinement in law of curtailment of freedoms that easily become ‘the norm’.

It is our duty as decent human beings to protect the vulnerable. Do everything we can to prevent transmission of illness and keep our loved ones safe.

It is also our duty as subjects of a democracy to defend the freedoms that were won over centuries of struggle. One of the most striking sights of the summer and autumn was the contrasting protest events, And the appalling politicisation of the police.

The Black Lives Matter and anti-Globalisation protests were policed in the most softly-softly, don’t-upset-anyone containment manner. In the face of public disgust at violence, desecration of landmarks and statues, the police retained a light touch. Which I have little problem with, it’s often the most appropriate way to avoid escalating fiery situations.

But compare that to the crackdown on anti-lockdown protests. Where ‘kettling’ returned, with strong-arm tactics and multiple arrests. And of course, the media doing their best to avoid coverage if they could – applying condescending language when they couldn’t.

For the pandemic – and the shutdown of our society – it’s now the vaccines rather than Christmas we’re being told to look forward to. We’re all being told to pin our hopes on this to ‘return to normality’. That’s all very well, but I have to ask – what happens when Covid-21/22 comes along?

Nobody is going to live for ever. By curtailing everything that brings us joy, fulfilment and happiness in our lives for the sake of apparently containing this virus – we can avoiding dying for now. But in doing so, we have stopped living.

In this unhappiest of years, I hope you can find some seasonal cheer. It is still the most wonderful time of the year and I encourage everyone to find some way to put a little gladness into your hearts. There is still much goodness and decency in our world.

And we must do all we can to nurture this in ourselves and others. We have such a short time on this planet. Let us take heart and find the courage to make the most of it, and help others to do the same.

Your servant,

MC

Can we turn the page? Living with Covid-19

Sun on female hand. Silhouette of hand holding sun

Covid-19 is an extremely serious, fatal virus that mercilessly attacks the respiratory system and wreaks havoc on the body. It’s a vicious, relentless disease which strikes people down and even some of those that survive are left scarred and condemned to live lesser lives than they should.

It’s a horrible way to die, gasping for breath and with a collapsed immune system allowing only drug-induced relief until the end.

Nobody should underestimate the seriousness of this dreadful virus which has killed so many people worldwide during this most ghastly of years.

It is not however, the plague. It is not the black death. It does not strike down everyone in its path. There is no wholesale slaughter of men, women and children.

It has become a global pandemic because of the connectivity of the modern world and the inconsistent response from governments. The origin within China remains murky. And only the most fervent optimist would believe the truth will emerge from that tightly controlled totalitarian regime.

I have no truck with the conspiracy theorists who speculate the fabled vaccines (167 currently in development) will be some kind of chemical enslavement or drug-induced sterilisation project. I watched Channel Four’s Utopia a few years ago and saw the scrambled logic behind that notion. Worth a watch if you haven’t seen it.

Instead, let’s listen to Professor Chris Witty. Our Chief Medical Officer is familiar to many of us in the UK from his appearances in the daily briefings from No 10. Interestingly he was born a week after me in April 66. And we have the same hairstyle.

His lecture given online to Gresham College at the height of the epidemic was a calm, measured and highly informative presentation. Free from hysteria, extreme language and irrational thought. I have added the link to watch below. It’s 1 hour and 21 minutes. Yes, a lot I know. But less than 3 episodes of Eastenders and a single episode of Love Island.

One of the key points he made was the overwhelming majority of people who were sadly affected by Covid-19 were the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions that made them vulnerable to the infection and its worst effects.

Former Supreme Court Justice Lord (Jonathan) Sumption took up the case within parliament and also in the rarefied world of Radio 4. Having mugged up on all the published data from ours and other governments he observed that 91% of UK deaths were people with pre-existing conditions and 88% of those were over 65.

The deaths of those under 50 were so minuscule that they did not even show up of the Office of National Statistics charts. Link at the end to view those too.

And yet – we have experienced a lockdown – no, a shutdown – of our national life that has devastated the economy, decimated the education of an entire generation of children and whipped up a state of national (nay global) hysteria that has virtually closed down diversity of voices.

Yes, it was understandable as the world confronted a disease and epidemic such as has not been seen for more than a century. And the ramp up of capacity within the National Health Service to manage the potential outbreak was rightly supported across the board. There would have been outrage if we’d had trolleys in hospital car parks with no room for the dying and suffering.

That was achieved and exceeded magnificently by our emergency services.

What has followed is a prolonged, uncertain period where we have willingly suspended everything that makes our lives enjoyable and worthwhile. We have donned the masks and stood apart from each other. We’ve stayed home. We’ve been scared into seeing threats everywhere. Manipulated en masse to condemn friends and family who don’t adhere to the same propaganda programmes.

Divided into doing the dubious and dirty work of the despots ourselves. The shutdown has been extended to any kind of rational discussion too. It seems the modern shouty approach of declaring black/white, right/wrong ‘us and them’ language has taken over this, the biggest story of the century so far.

So – what’s to be done?

Protect the vulnerable. Those who are older, or at any age with conditions that make them susceptible – ring-fence and make them safe in any way we can. I’ll wear a mask, and keep my distance when out and about if the evidence tells me that protects the vulnerable ones who may also be out and about. The winter is coming with the usual flu considerations to add to the ‘second wave’ mix.

This raises the fiendishly difficult separation of those within family and social circles. What do you do when children go back to school and Nan lives with them? What do you do when the vulnerable ones are left isolated, lonely and in despair?  We need a sensible, practical discussion around these genuine risks. And a truly effective test & trace system we can have faith in would help.

Our fledgling efforts in recent years to confront the mental health crisis have been largely crushed under the stampede to sanitise the world. Mental health issues are still there and increased for many. On the flip side, we’ve inadvertently given the natural world a boost as our daily pollutant habits were curtailed.

We need to take steps to open up meaningful, purposeful and worthwhile life again. The vast majority who contract this virus may have a nasty experience and recover. It’s going to be around for a long time. Smallpox existed from the 3rd century BC and the last case was diagnosed in 1977.

The statistics speak for themselves. It is not a ubiquitous danger. We are not all going to die. We need to take care of our vulnerable and protect them with care and compassion. But we need to start living again.

And – with reference to my previous blogs on this subject – let’s make the new normal a more equitable, fair and localised success story for our communities, country and humanity.

Your servant,

MC

 

Links:

Professor Chris Witty: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3BdPKpWbxTg&t=165s

Lord Sumption: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86P7EEJeNKM

Office of National Statistics: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases