A Return to the Status Quo is What America Needs

Please excuse my absence on this blog, I’ve had a busy few weeks. Some of you will be here for the book content, so ignore this if politics isn’t your thing, but it’s one of my passions that I simply can’t help writing about. Ahead of the US Election Result, in this piece, I make the case that despite his many faults, Joe Biden is what America needs right now. If you’re an American reading this and you haven’t already – vote, and vote sensibly.


There was never going to be anything radical, or life-changing about Joe Biden, but rather that is the point.

After 4 rollercoaster years in power, Donald Trump has exhausted, not reignited, the American people. From denying climate change to inciting a war over words with the leader of North Korea, to the more recent trivialisation of a deadly disease that has come to define our lives, the time has come for a bit of normalcy in American politics.

And it seems that American voters are now recognising that too.

In the key battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin to name a few, Biden is on track for some leads which will be essential for him to dominate the Electoral College, and securing the magic number of 270 needed to win the presidency. The mood has shifted since what seems like a lifetime ago back in 2015 when Trump was given the keys to the White House.

The pandemic has caused the world to wake up in many ways. During national shutdowns, international travel was halted, and the stay at home order for many meant that towns and cities across the world, for the first time in years, became silent. The sound of rush hour traffic became a distant memory. This gave the planet a temporary rebate from impending climate disaster, but has since, made the issue even more imperative for us to solve.  

Regardless of who wins the election, the US is on track to leave the Paris Climate Change agreement, thanks to Trump. However, if he gains power, Biden has insisted he will make sure the US is added straight back in. His policies on climate change, including his commitment to a gradual transfer from oil to renewable energy, may have kicked up a storm, created by his rival, but at the heart of it – is a man who cares about the planet. Though seen as radical in some American circles, a Biden presidency would put the US back on track to meeting their climate change targets.

Biden’s Green New Deal directly draws the connection between the economy and the environment, something Trump has labelled this as socialist and clownlike due to the requirement of $3trn required to completely overhaul the US economy. If Biden gets back into power, the US can get back to business and focus efforts on combating the biggest threat to all our futures, instead of ignoring its very existence.

Furthermore, Trump’s branding of this election and his rival candidate as being part of “a choice between a socialist nightmare and the American dream” is deliberately intended as a divisive, political tactic, but it doesn’t work. Trump is drawing on the historic fearmongering tactics to paint anyone who veers against Republicanism with the same brush. We saw it in the 1950s with Communism – and it has been used again to add fuel to Trump’s own fiery, Red wave. By Britain’s political standards at least, Biden could not be further from the left – he is the middle ground candidate who is essential for getting America back on track, getting out of the pandemic and moving beyond.

Biden’s dullness, and the feeling one gets of wanting to snooze doing one of his speeches, is problematic for many reasons, but it is what is needed in American politics right now. During his bid for President in 1988, Biden fought against Ronald Reagan and stated in a series of BBC interviews that the thing he hated the most about this president, was how he divided the American people. Over thirty years on, he is fighting on the same grounds, but it might just be enough this time around. His deliberate reincarnation of the unity candidate is what America needs, and it feels like this has managed to convince voters too.

American’s are fed up. They have had their lives turned upside during this pandemic, the lines of racial, social and gender division are now bolder than ever before. The land of the free is in turmoil – and what does it need? A return to normalcy and the status quo. Only then and after – will it be able to make way for the pathway towards radical change.

Covid-19 has made a government of disgrace the new normal

For any government, facing a global pandemic would be an enormous political challenge. The implementation of an unprecedented nationwide lockdown could never have been predicted back in December, when the Tories won their majority. However, the actions they have taken will indiscriminately define the rest of their tenure.

Regardless of the demanding nature of our current climate, without a doubt, this crisis has exposed this government and the Prime Minister, for what they really are.

Crises are known for bringing to the surface the real nature of leaders in defining moments. For over a decade, our country has been led by the same party, but the crisis has revealed ever more blatantly, the kind of politics they wish to govern by. In the wake of the pandemic one would hope the world will become a better place. But will this transfer to British politics?

The country held its breath when Boris Johnson was taken into intensive care in early April and it was a defining moment in the nation’s experience of the crisis. Furthermore, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, contracted the virus at the end of March. Unlike Johnson, Hancock managed to escape with a mild experience of the virus. Despite having a real and life threatening experience, it seems ludicrous that the PM has opened the floodgates as early as July 4th, even encouraging a return to hustle and bustle, despite a still ever present threat in circulation

Image: Insider. Soho, London, 4 July.

Furthermore, these past few weeks have seen the rise of racial tensions in Britain, in response to the death of George Floyd, who was murdered by a white policeman in Minneapolis. The Black Lives Matter movement has hit many cities and towns across the country in joining the fight against exposing the persistent racial inequality in our country and expressing solidarity with America. However, this was also met with protests from the far right, evoking, “scenes of violence, desecration and racism” in central London just a few weeks ago. 

Johnson’s treatment of the BLM movement was half hearted and his address only initially prompted by the leader of the opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Moreover, the biggest blunder during the address of the BLM movement was Dominic Raab’s treatment of “taking a knee.” The term refers to the symbolic gesture adopted by footballer Colin Kaepernick in 2016, during a national anthem to highlight the persistent racism underpinning American society. Despite this, the foreign secretary described it as “a symbol of subjugation and subordination” originating in the Game of Thrones TV series.

Not only does this show a sheer lack of sensitivity during a pivotal moment for the BLM both here and in the US, but a mirror into how out of touch this party really is. 

Scenes from Central London, depicting a far-right protest. Image: The Guardian

The Covid crisis has exposed the bare bones of the charleton, Johsnon. He is a career politician that thrives from using the tactic of “political bluster” as seen in this season’s PMQs. It worked with Jeremy Corbyn, however, with the meticulous Keir Starmer, he only appears more out of touch than usual.

During the crisis, we’ve already witnessed two major U-turns in the government, with the abandonment of the NHS surcharge for migrant healthcare workers and the Marcus Rashford led campaign to continue food provision for some of Britain’s poorest families. U-turns alone are not proof of weakness, but these examples certainly illustrate that this crisis reveals a government and leader out of touch with the rest of society and their concerns. 

And then there’s Dominic Cummings. The evident breaking of the lockdown rules by the government’s chief advisor was the cherry on the cake in terms of symbolising hypocrisy and ignorance.

If the maker of the rules himself could not abide by them, how was there ever any hope for the public? The Cummings debacle may have been brushed under the carpet, but it is one that will certainly define the Tory’s handling of this pandemic in years to come. Moreover, it provides us with the most glaring of symbols into the realities of this government. 

The sea of social change anticipated by the joint experience of Covid-19 and the BLM movement could be on the horizon, however, the leadership of this government has maintained its status quo and exposed itself for what it really is; a government of disgrace, hypocrisy and removed from the issues felt by the majority.

Experience of a crisis can often bring out the best in people, however, for the Tory’s, their worst sides have definitely been revealed. The most worrying part? It has become the new normal. 

PMQs ~ poverty, schools, and the “wibble wobble” opposition

I thought I would trial a new series. For someone who has “politics” in the tag line of their blog, I don’t nearly write enough related to this topic. That said, I am passionate about politics and want to practice my political commentary, so I thought I would start a weekly (where possible) response to Prime Minister’s Questions.

If you’re not from the UK, every week we have a question and answer session in the House of Commons between the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, and elected Members of Parliament (MPs). Some are arguably more insightful than others, but importantly, it allows the elected government to be scrutinized.

I always enjoy watching PMQs even if they make me frustrated. If politics is not your thing and you only come to my blog for reviews – I totally understand, you don’t have to read any of this! The book reviews are still here to stay!

Anyway, I thought I would try something new, so this is my response to this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions (17/06/20). Obviously, it goes without saying, I am no expert, but these are just my thoughts and attempt to analyse what’s going on.

The week in politics (so far)

In the lead up to this week’s PMQs, the Prime Minister faced scrutiny due to his drastic U-turn for free school meals. This new policy, will provide some of the poorest families with weekly food vouchers over the summer holidays. Just 24 hours before the U-turn, the government had rejected the proposal. The PM has now announced a, “covid summer food fund” in response to the campaign led by footballer, Marcus Rashford.

This is the government’s second biggest U-turn during the crisis, just weeks before it revoked the NHS surcharge for migrant workers, amidst mounting pressure from the opposition and some Conservative MPs.

Announced yesterday by the Health Secretary, Matt Handcock, was a new steroid drug for treating Covid-19. The drug, dexamethasone, is said to be able to reduce inflammation for seriously ill patients. Handcock has stated this discovery is, “one of the best pieces of news we’ve had through this whole crisis.”

Returning to Brexit, Johnson announced that he sees no reason why the UK could not guarantee a EU trade deal by the end of July.

PMQs summarized 17.06.20

  • Topics covered this week include: the government’s stance on the vandalizing of monuments, rising levels of child poverty, children returning to schools, lack of local council funding and social security for poorer families.
  • Starmer geared the debate towards the issue of rising poverty, directly quoting from the government led commission which stated that child poverty could increase to 5.2 million by 2022.
  • Johnson stated the government had reduced poverty and critiqued Starmer’s questioning on the basis it was only an “anticipated” report.
  • Starmer pointed out to Johnson that his facts were from a government led commission, to which the PM seemed to know nothing about.
  • Johnson claimed there were 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than in 2010. This statement has been fact checked, with no proof of credibility.
  • The Social Mobility Commission report stated that, “600,000 more children are now living in relative poverty than in 2012” despite Johnson’s claim it was only a “projection.”
  • Johnson argued (five times to be precise) that it was important to get children back to school to help eradicate the threat of child poverty.
  • Ian Blackford, leader of the SNP, asked the PM if he would consider raising the amount of social security to an extra £20 per family, to cope with added economic pressures. He accused the PM of wanting to spend more on his own “vanity” project.
  • Johnson claimed the government will always “do more where we can” to help families, but did not agree to raise the amount by £20.

Analysis

PMQs felt quite fraught this week, amidst the background of the latest government U-turn, it’s no surprise that the PM seemed more flustered than usual. These were hard questions he evidently didn’t know the answer to. There was no holding back in terms of the personal attacks against the opposition, as the PM was keen to emphasize Labour’s mixed position on pupils returning to school.

On being questioned by Starmer about the levels of poverty exposed in the commission, the PM failed to offer a legitimate line of defense, even using out of date figures. Instead, he used the political tactic of bluster to deflect attention away from the issues at heart. At one point, Starmer even offered to change places with the PM as he was complaining about the difficult questions.

The more I watch PMQs between these two, the more it seems obvious that Johnson simply cannot handle difficult questions. He re-uses the same argument and seems to adopt a stance of confusion that allows himself to escape from providing a response. Starmer throughout this pandemic has offered a clear and concise rebuttal to Johnson’s absurdity- even beginning to turn the tide in YouGov’s polls.

This PMQs saw very little in the way of beneficial debate, Johnson’s continuous deployment of the “bluster” tactic eradicated any real opportunity for discussion and scrutiny. But I’m inclined to think this is the point. The government have blatantly failed on reducing poverty, and I wish we could have seen a proper response from the PM. His out of date statistics on social mobility rendered the discussion of an imperative issue null and void, and revealed how out of touch he is.

The experience of Covid-19 in Britain has already exposed the faults within our society. As a deep recession looms ahead, this government has to be continually challenged on its policy to “do more where we can.” But particularity, on reducing the inherent poverty and inequality of opportunity that lies within, and has been smoldering for over a decade.

That’s it for this week, let me know what you think of this format!

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The actions of Dominic Cummings symbolise the wider government failures during this crisis

In the early hours of last night, we were greeted with the breaking news story that Dominic Cummings, the senior advisor to the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had broken lockdown rules by leaving London to travel to his family’s farm in Durham

Here reportedly, his wife was unwell with Covid symptoms. Cummings’ motives and further explanation, was that this was an essential journey as he had to help with childcare. There is confusion over whether at the time of travel, Cummings had symptoms or not but even so, he ignored his own public guidance to stay put and “protect the NHS and save lives.”

It doesn’t serve the public message and only adds to further confusion. Additionally, his sister and nieces (who hadn’t developed symptoms) had already offered to help look after the children. In the wake of the findings, the Tory party seem to be divided over whether these actions are forgivable or not. Michael Gove, in a Tweet, proclaimed, “Caring for your wife and child is not a crime” – it seems politicians are exempt from their own rules.

If we put the actions of Cummings aside for one moment, we can see how this lack of responsibility has been a prominent feature at the heart of the UK government during the COVID-19 crisis. As an individual, isolated issue, it does partly feel like the media are dragging it out a bit, when we should be focusing on more prominent issues. I think it’s wrong what he did, and he does deserve to be sacked, but I think it’s significance is in the bigger picture it points to.

Image: SkyNews

There are many instances of this, “do as I say, not as I do” attitude from senior government officials, which points to further failures of dealing with this crisis. Most notably, this includes Neil Ferguson, who’s epidemiology model on the virus was used to shape lockdown regulations in the UK. Ferguson broke lockdown rules to receive frequent visits from a lover (who wasn’t a part of the same household). Although I am not a fan of the “name, shame and blame” culture, it does point to some wider issues that surround this crisis. Failures from individuals, and the government as a whole, illustrates the aversion of responsibility and denial culture that Boris Johnson’s Tory party embodies.

Image: Yorkshire Post

Take the return of Prime Minister’s Questions. In his second performance as new Labour Leader, Keir Starmer pressed the PM on when exactly the Test, Track and Trace facility will be available ahead of the plan to reopen primary schools in England from June 1st.

It took time and time again before Johnson eventually blurted out that he “promised” that by next month this system would be in place. The week before, Johnson claimed the meticulous Starmer was “ignorant” and didn’t know the facts. Besides from reading out the advice from the government papers themselves, this mere slither of Johnson’s performance feels to me like a blueprint for what’s to come over the next four years. In professing the “ignorance” of the opposition, Johnson uses rhetoric to avert attention from his own scrutiny, and avoids delivering a response to the criticism at hand.

Johnson also told the House of Commons he wished the Leader of the Opposition wouldn’t be so, “negative”. This is a dangerous line of defense, which allows Johnson to appear to have the upper hand. The very point of facing the opposition is so the government can be scrutinized, the PM is evidently aware of this, however, he uses it to his advantage to avert any responsibility. Starmer’s criticisms over the government matter more than ever in the light of their appalling handling of this crisis. 

In deliberation, Johnson uses this unique characterization that he has managed to perfect over the years. He plays the idiot to avoid responsibility and always fails to directly answer a line of questioning. It’s this ignorance and sheer lack of accountability that is a sign of the deterioration of the Conservative Party. They may be ahead in the polls and be the shining beacon in many minds of the public, but in reality, they lack imperative accountability and the humanity to admit mistakes. If Cummings, Matt Handcock, (the Health Secretary) and Johnson were simply able to apologize for their mistakes and move on – they would at least have a portion of respectability, even if it were to be short lived. 

Keir Starmer was never the ideal Leader of the Opposition in my eyes, but I have to admit, his performance at PMQs has taken me by surprise. He is definitive, meticulous and has an unwavering sense of dominion over Johnson who appears to be crumbling at the seams as the weeks go on. Without the support of his backbenchers, Johnson is revealed for what he really is. He’s not a leader, he doesn’t have the accountability that politicians need, for he was always a mere campaigner even back in his Mayor of London days. Faced with criticism, Johnson never accepts responsibility. Will he ever accept failure over the horrific PPE shortage that NHS workers have had to deal with? 

Johnson told the public to practice, “Good, solid, British common sense” with the loosening of the lockdown. The switch from, “Stay at Home” to, “Stay Alert” is irrefutably vague. However, it seems that even before this subtle change, his own senior advisors couldn’t cope with following the simplest of instructions. And when faced with criticism (rightly so) senior Tory’s practice their public school boy tradition of worming their way out of accountability – it’s what they do best. 

Johnson and his clapping for the NHS whilst stripping them of adequate PPE, and formally making immigrated NHS workers pay a £400 surcharge for using the NHS, shows himself for what he really is. He’s hypocritical and all about proclaiming a false image of national unity in a time of crisis. It’s the illusion of display at its finest – however, it doesn’t take much for the cracks to be revealed.

In the weeks since recovery and addition of another heir to the great Johnson bloodline, the PM has taken a back seat in the workings of his government. Barely appearing in daily Press Conferences, it does beg the question over whether this figure of fun is more of a part-time Prime Minister who simply lacks the skills of tackling scrutiny. Where is he today to defend the actions of his senior advisor? It would certainly fit in with the theme of avoiding accountability that has protruded during the worst health crisis of a generation.

Have an opinion? Join in with the debate in the comments 🙂

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Going back to Orwell: 70 years on

The Essays of Orwell: Books Vs Cigarettes 1946

Before thinking about writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me that today is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, until reading something published by the BBC. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about his life, his writing and political outlook.

Who was George Orwell?

Known most for Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair, writing under the pen name, George Orwell, has come to be one of the most famous author’s of the twentieth century. Born in Bengal, Orwell would go on to win two scholarships at two prestigious English schools, Wellington and Eton.

After completing his education, Orwell became an Imperial Servant. This was the beginning of the period in which Orwell was manifesting his political outlook, in 1928, he resigned from the post, as influenced by rising anti-imperialist sentiment.

After this experience; Orwell tried to immerse himself in the realities of deprivation; he donned rags as he went to London’s East End and the poorest areas of Paris. Which later, formed the book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). This is often cited as Orwell’s first socialist memoir and insight into poverty. Later publishing, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) which is an even greater exploration of these themes. Wigan Pier deals with the conditions that working-class individuals were experiencing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, before the outbreak of World War Two.

Orwell is remembered primarily because of 1984, but during his time, he was a prolific figure in the more radical politics of the day. He was first of all, a self confessed anarchist, then came out as a socialist in the 1930s, against the rising tide of fascism. After being rejected for military service during the Second World War, he began working for the left-wing magazine, Tribune in 1943.

In this post however, it is not his novels I want to talk about, but rather, his essays. Having read 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and The Clergyman’s Daughter, I thought I knew Orwell quite well, until I started to discover his essays. This post in particular, will be discussing one essay, titled, “Books Vs Cigarettes” which Orwell published in 1946 in the Tribune.

Books Vs Cigarettes (1946)

Writing in 1946, after the end of World War Two, this essay is in response to the idea that reading is an expensive and inaccessible past time. This idea is often thwarted about in our own society, with the assumption it is a privilege that people in 9-5’s cannot afford. Orwell is therefore, critiquing the assumption that reading is a luxury activity.

Orwell in a convincing argument, states that mundane habits such as smoking and drinking, will cost the average person (per year) more than it would to sustain a reading habit. He details his own spending, Orwell was a heavy smoker himself, which cost him more than he spent on books per year.

Take this framework into today. The average Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify subscription probably amounts to being able to buy 1-2 new paperbacks per month. Or even better, when buying secondhand, probably 3-5, or even more, depending on the price. Orwell makes the point that there are far more expensive habits which are permitted among the populous, but reading is discounted as being a costly luxury.

Orwell also emphasizes the importance of buying second-hand books and borrowing from local libraries, friends or family which I think is important to point out. Reading doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, nor does it have to revolve around you owning the material you are consuming.

Additionally – Orwell goes on to highlight that the value of reading should not be purely in monetary terms, as one book can have a lifelong impact. (Indeed, 1984 itself is often sighted as a book which has changed the outlook of many readers, myself included.)

The impact of reading one book is worth more than its monetary cost, due to the longevity of the ideas it can plant,

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s attitude to life…”

George Orwell, “Books Vs Cigarettes,” 1946.

Final thoughts

Thus, in sum, Orwell argues that in fact, reading is one of the cheapest forms of, “recreations” and it is wrong to assume books are “less exciting” or not so worthy of spending time on. I feel this point is significantly applicable to now – with evenings easily absorbed by Instagram or watching YouTube on the loop. Reading is in fact, one of the most worthwhile past times, which does not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

On the anniversary of Orwell’s death; perhaps this should serve as a reminder that books are powerful and some books certainly leave their marks; on the way we think, view the world, and form opinions; in the most permanent of ways.

Furthermore, reading is not a luxury but a form of “recreation,” which is often brushed under the carpet in an age of so many other forms of entertainment. What would Orwell think? We can only guess.

I will be attempting to read as many of Orwell’s essays this year as I can, to try and understand the way he thought, and how this influenced his writing. I will keep you updated!

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell/Animal-Farm-and-Nineteen-Eighty-four

Link to the article: https://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar

This is interesting too, was published by the BBC today: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/would-george-orwell-have-had-a-smartphone/p080x74t