FOREIGN AFFAIRS

I’ve been reading a book called Parting Shots, edited by Matthew Parris, which is a collection of valedictory reports by ambassadors leaving their final posting and therefore approaching the end of their careers and free to say whatever they liked – which they certainly did. These reports were meant to be of very restricted distribution; but they were wormed out of the shadowy system by a cunning and knowledgeable journalist under the Freedom of Information rules. The government has had the last laugh however; it has since banned the writing of these reports.

They are often very stylishly written and well constructed. Some are amusing; some are insightful, and some are horrifying in their prejudices.

I’ve always regarded the Foreign Office with deep suspicion, wondering if it pursues its own direction ignoring the government (which from its point of view must just be a temporary inconvenience) and questioning if it represents modern Britain at all.

We went to dinner once with a Foreign Office couple on their ‘at home’ assignment. Their children, aged 11 and 13, were made to sit on the stairs and come in when our hostess rang a bell and clear the table (in correct formal mode). We were not at all comfortable with this arrangement and helped the children by stacking the dishes, and talked to them about their holidays. Their parents were quite resentful of this demonstration of disapproval, and asked us to desist, saying it was part of their education. (We did not desist).

I do however recommend the book!

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THE TIMES WE LIVE IN

THE TIMES WE LIVE IN

I haven’t written much about Brexit recently. There’s a limit to how often you can say something is a shambolic mess and it still remain interesting. It is one thing to suggest that our political system is in urgent need of drastic overhaul. It’s quite another to watch in embarrassed shame as our differences are played out before all the world in a display of bad behaviour and selfish indifference to the interests of the citizens of the British Isles that quite takes your breath away.

It is as if parliament was in a boat sailing down a great, uncharted river. The roar of an enormous waterfall can be heard coming ominously closer. But the sailors are paying no attention. They are too busy arguing about who should sit where in the boat.

And it’s not as if you can identify even one party as having behaved acceptably. The Tories treatment of Theresa May has been disgraceful, but she has been arrogant in her assumption that her way was best, and she has not shared her thoughts with her colleagues (or with us for that matter.) I’ve been a great advocate of the adage, Cometh the hour, cometh the man. But the hour is definitely upon us and the man has not appeared. The very fact that the Tories allow Michael Gove’s name to appear on the list of likely candidates for being the next Prime Minister shows the poverty of leaders in their ranks.

Labour refuses to cooperate over anything in the hope that it can bring about a general election from which it appears to think it might emerge victorious. I am not so sure. We are not as stupid as they seem to think.

There’s no health in the smaller parties either. Even I become irritated with the SNP who seem to forget that they are a British party as well as a Scottish one.

As for the DUP, I’d better not start on them. They are never going to agree on anything. I amuse myself by imagining that we offer Ulster back to Ireland as a present. I’m sure the Irish would be very cooperative with us thereafter.

We’re going to have to march. I don’t see that anything will ever be resolved otherwise. And Parliament had better start paying attention, for that’s the road to revolution.

FAIR SPEECH AND FOUL

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FAIR SPEECH AND FOUL

In the sorry mess that is Brexit, I’ve seldom thought anything else apart from shaking my head in disbelief at people’s (everybody’s practically) bad behaviour and stirrings of alarm (faint as yet) at the possibility of leaving the EU without a deal.

On the day that Parliament voted so decisively against Mrs May’s proposal, I was interested in comparing the style of the two closing speeches – Michael Gove for the government, and Tom Watson (Labour) for the opposition. Both were very good speeches but they were utterly different in style.

Dealing first with Gove, I was quite amazed that he could deliver so effective a speech. I had him down as what in Scotland would be called a ‘nyaff’ – generally ‘a wee nyaff’ – which loosely translated means an annoying, useless, worthless person. Someone who has irritated you but you’re not going to take any action against him because he’s ‘just a wee nyaff’. Gove’s speech was like an attack by a wasp – a series of fast action taunts against Corbyn which were designed to annoy him and damage his reputation. He did get annoyed but there was no external acknowledgement of this. He listened without comment to the end.

Watson was altogether a more dangerous opponent. He spoke calmly and quietly and he began in praise of Theresa May. He said he accepted that she acted in what she believed to be the country’s best interests in all her decision making and arguments; that she had put a great deal of her strength and energy into securing a vote in our favour. His brief account of things painted a picture of a fine servant of the country and he in common with many others admired her energy and commitment she brought to every task she undertook. At this point the camera briefly scanned Theresa May’s face; she looked as if she was about to cry, so that I said, ‘Don’t cry, Theresa, don’t cry.’ She didn’t cry and he went on to describe how the country was sympathetic to her. He himself had sympathy with her, listing some of her difficulties. Then in the same calm voice he said that however good her intentions, she had failed. She had not succeeded in building a consensus on anything; she was inflexible; she had decided the course of action she was recommending was the correct one and although he did not say so it was clear that he thought the rabid right wing of the Tory party were dominating the actions being approved. She had failed and she alone was to blame for this state of affairs.

At this point one had to pause and think about what was being said.

I myself (never a Tory sympathiser) have some sympathy for Mrs May. But Watson’s speech with its generous acknowledgement of the Prime Minister’s strength and drive; her capacity to hold to her position no matter who was the challenger made you realise that some of Mrs May’s finest qualities are also a weakness and make her unable to take any view or plan apart from her own seriously.

I could dismiss Gove’s remarks as mere propaganda and malicious spin because they were – not outright lies, but details from his history which could be mendaciously spun. The history of the English in Ireland is capable of different interpretations, and to have sympathy for the cause of a united Ireland does not make one a terrorist sympathiser any more than to believe the time has come for an alteration in the government of our component nations makes one any less British. Nor does a desire to terminate the monarchy mean one cannot be a patriot, or that to sympathise with the difficulties of the Palestinians means one is anti Jewish. These are differences of opinion and there should be room for them all in a democratic country.

But with Watson’s remarks you felt that every word was true; and that he had examined her strengths and weaknesses with shrewdness, insight, wisdom and tolerance and was kind in his remarks and fair in his judgement.

He made me reflect that Theresa May on finding herself still Prime Minister but with a reduced majority just carried on as if everything was quite normal. Whereas we are having the greatest constitutional crisis since the Abdication, she has attempted the impossible, and tried to ‘fix’ the differences within her own party, scrabble up a few loose ends in other parties and win a majority in favour of her preferred solution.

She failed to recognise that the crisis demanded that she set up a cross party group, comprising MPs of all parties and other interested parties (Farage to be invited also). It would have had to be headed up by a Leave person. Also there would have to be whoever available to the government was recognised as an ace negotiator. (Theresa May certainly doesn’t seem to be one of those.) She and the cabinet should have carried on running the country and this special group should have been negotiating with Europe.

It’s probably too late for this approach now. Goodness knows what the outcome will be.

Tom Watson gave a good speech. He shone light in a dark corner.

 

FORSAKING THE HABITS OF A LIFETIME

I’ve been reading A Time of Love and Tartan by Alexander McCall Smith. I read and enjoyed his series of novels about that generously proportioned Lady Detective Precious Ramotswe, but this series is set in Edinburgh, and it is – well, it’s very Edinburgh. If you were to compare Edinburgh to an American city, it would be Boston (and how Edinburgh would disapprove of the very thought

of comparing any other city to itself). You can’t very well complain that Edinburgh has ideas above its station when it is acknowledged to be one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and the capital of Scotland as well. But Edinburgh is a presbyterian stronghold, and is certainly neither friendly nor welcoming. The glad rags it puts on for the weeks of the Festival are not at all typical of its garb for the rest of the year. But we who love it are faithful in spite of its failings and it’s good to see it so precisely captured by so distinguished an author as Alexander McCall Smith.

In this novel there is a boy who attracts the reader’s sympathy who suffers with an absolutely ghastly mother. She’s a bully; a ‘feminist’; a ‘suffragette’; (she brings these honourable estates into severe disrepute.) She hates men and disparages her husband and son, whom she makes wear pink dungarees. She insists that he attends psychotherapy to avoid any problems arising, and he makes up dreams which he hopes will satisfy the therapist. The latter is very excited because he thinks writing about this unusual case will bring him fame and fortune. The woman is so awful that the cunning and experienced Mr McCall Smith took the opportunity to give her one or two fine qualities and so render her credible. Very few people are completely lacking in finer feelings.

I have to admit now to being wrong in my judgement of Theresa May. (An admission of error is not common with me. I leave it to you to decide whether this is because I am rarely wrong, or just because I’m too pig-headed to admit to mistakes!) I sneered at Mrs May with her goody two (leopard-skin) shoes; her girl guide freshness; no doubt she’d been head girl somewhere or other. Yet I find myself – in spite of my best efforts not to – admiring the lady – and she is a lady which that other so-called one never was. You have to admire her courage and fortitude. Even when looking a little fatigued, after days of overwork and not enough sleep she still stands there for hour after hour, giving clear, comprehensible and concise replies to questions. She answers the questions too. When she says she has put the national interest before party or personal ambition then I (God help me) believe her (while feeling my pulse to see if I’m feverish). Doubtless if she hung around long enough we’d come to the point where we had had enough of her. But that doesn’t seem very likely.

But if her cabinet colleagues turn on her like the pack of rabid dogs they are, and she, fleeing from their uncalled for viciousness, appeals to us over their heads (can she do this?) then though I can’t believe I’m saying this, I’m going to forsake the habits of a lifetime and vote for whatever Theresa May asks for our support over, despite the fact that I was a remainer and Theresa May is a Tory who wears leopard skin shoes!

CAVING IN

CAVING IN

Last week I was declaring myself Not-a-Fan of Theresa May. This week, it will surprise no-one to learn that I’m also Not-a-Fan of Donald Trump. In his case, I don’t think it’s even necessary to list any reasons. Where would you begin and end?

However, I’m still rather ashamed of our behaviour towards him as a visitor to this country. I’m all for the rights to peaceful protests, so we had the RIGHT to object to him, but it was hardly good manners on our part to insult him personally. He is the President of the United States after all, and he came in peace. We would not be pleased if some Prime Minister of ours, however he or she might have been despised by us, were to have been received by the United States in like manner. And apart from the issue of how we treated him, there’s the question as to whether this is how we want to behave.

I think it might have been a better way of demonstrating our disapproval of him if we just had completely ignored him. I suspect that the good Donald would prefer even negative attention, rather than none.

And while I’m thinking about media attention, I heard a BBC news broadcast in the last few days which stated that Theresa May had ‘caved in’ to pressure from some section of her party over some issue or other. I thought the BBC was famed for it’s even handed and unbiased reporting? This is certainly not an example of that. ‘Caved in’ is a) an opinion and b) an emotive term. Mind you, I think it was true, but they should find a better way of putting it!

I’m going to cave in to the heat and go and read a magazine!

COULD YOU DO ANY BETTER?

COULD YOU DO ANY BETTER?

We’ve had an unpredictable week in politics with predictions as to the longevity or otherwise of Theresa May as Prime Minister. Now I’m not a fan of Theresa May – she’s a head girl, a Tory, and her taste runs to leopard skin shoes – but I think her unexpected survival this far is due to one of the few admirable qualities of the British electorate – ie their desire for FAIR PLAY. (I mean the electorate’s desire for fair play, not the politician’s obviously. Many of them don’t have a notion what it means.)

The Tory party has a ruthless and unprincipled attitude to the removal of leaders who no longer suit it, but if it wishes to win the election that will follow, it has to pay some attention to the wishes and views of the voting public.

So I find myself entirely surprised to be in the position that I’m defending Mrs May. She is in a very difficult position. She voted to remain but she’s heading a team and a government tasked with leaving Europe. For her majority, she’s obliged to depend on the DUP which is the equivalent of a baby owl needing the support of a fish eagle feeding chicks – i.e. tenuous to say the least. There are elements of her own party which are rabid in their support of Leave or Remain and Cameron was so afraid of them that he asked this unaskable question, which he ought not to have done. However it has been asked and we must now deliver accordingly.

Mrs May must lie in her bed at night, wondering which of the undesirable possible outcomes might be marginally acceptable. She does not enjoy overwhelming support from any section of party or country and most pundits predicted her demise in a couple of weeks, Yet she is still here. She has managed (just about) to steer her way through these dangerous waters. She has kept her temper while being insulted and betrayed (and by those from whom she might reasonably expected some loyalty.) She gets up every morning and goes doggedly through her day, and as Dickens observed, It’s dogged as does it.

As I’ve stated, I’m no supporter of Mrs May and it’s very unlikely that I would vote for her party. But I don’t think she’s done so badly. She doesn’t insult us or patronise or underestimate us as her female predecessor did. She is entitled to be treated with respect and to the right of a Prime Minister to call the next election and be listened to with courtesy.

Besides, of the candidates available, who would you prefer at the present time? I agree that the lady is neither decisive nor brilliant. Boris is brilliant and having him in charge would be even more hair-raising. Brilliant people quite often soar like a burning star only to come to an equally spectacular bad end. Think of Napoleon.

No, on reflection, Don’t!

DARKEST HOUR

I was born in 1949 when sweet rationing after the Second World War was still operating. My father gave me his rations and I felt rich.

At that time, with the war so recent, it was not taught in school, and survivors of the fighting did not feel inclined to speak of it much.

The first I heard of the war was the recurrent ‘She was at Dunkirk’ which skipper after skipper of the local fishing boats would say to my mother of their vessels. I asked my mother, “What is this Dunkirk that they keep talking about?’ and she explained briefly that it was a rescue by small boats of soldiers who had been stranded on the beach at Dunkirk and were being repeatedly bombed by German fighter planes. I thought this a dastardly act, was glad the rescue had been mounted, and then thought no more about it.

My father during the years of the war drove steam engine trains from Aberdeen to Glasgow which was a reserved occupation and so the war affected him very little (and this was just as well, for he would not have fitted in at all well to the army and was likely to have been shot by our own side!)

When I was about ten I lived briefly with my grandmother in Glasgow. She had television (which we never had as children because needless to say, my father didn’t approve of it.) There was a series of programmes called Victory at Sea, which were broadcast on an evening when my mother and grandmother were out at some ladies meeting, and my father working shifts, so I watched this alone (I don’t remember where my brother was – perhaps he went to bed earlier). I was enthralled by this wonderful programme; the lines of battle ships spread out across the Atlantic; the whoop, whoop, whoop call; the epic stories of the ships that were pursued and hunted down. This was how I learnt the history of the Second World War.

John and I saw the film ‘Darkest Hour’ earlier this week and greatly enjoyed it. It is a bit gruelling in parts, but you can scarcely avoid this given the subject matter. There was a moment when I waited anxiously to see what the action would be when one of our heroes has been left behind as he is too ill to make the crossing. The German officer who comes across him is kind, and gives him water and a cigarette. And glad that the Germans were nor universally vilified. There are always good men and bad on both sides.

The portrayal of Churchill was possibly the best rendition of the role that I have seen.   He showed some of the integrity and capacity to hold to his own judgement that we know Churchill possessed. In general, I am not an admirer of Churchill. He was wrong about practically everything except the war, but then that was what chiefly mattered. There he was equipped (but only just equipped) with everything he needed. Of course it is mandatory to explore all avenues of peace before you commit to war, but you have to be careful who you pick as your allies.

Churchill was an orator. There are not many of these in a generation. In our own, there is Alex Salmond, George Galloway, Billy Graham, Boris Johnson and a few others. George Galloway didn’t have anything to say; Billy Graham sold fairy stories; Alex Salmond was unable to ignite his audience to action; Boris is too self-interested. But Churchill was able to see what lay in the heart of his people and articulate it for them. We will fight them on the beaches – in other words, even if we have lost the battle and are facing slavery and death, we will fight on to the last man; and we will never surrender, Churchill spoke the words but they were what was in our hearts. The Germans could not understand why we so rated Dunkirk which to them represented defeat and failure, but it was because we all stood together; we did not abandon our colleagues; we would sink or swim together, and we despised the German’s lack of gallantry and dastardly conduct. It is not easy to be an orator. Very few people can do it. Much of the time you just sit around doing nothing much apparently, but you are honing your skills and thinking, so that when the day finally arrives, you can recognise that it has come and write the speech and deliver it.

Churchill wrote the speech that was in our hearts; and for this service alone we are forever in his debt. We forgave him all his sins and took him as one of our heroes.

I recommend the film!