This week with Brian 20 to 27 October 2022

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Including the hardest word, 45 days adrift, the two largest parties, dwindling support, a different theory, the tofu-eating wokerati, the anti-growth gang of two, not a great read, no coming back, no capeesh, BoJo in the ring, fracking, a case for absolutism, Winnie the Pooh, from the ridiculous to the sublime, castrating Pablo’s hippos, 5.54 Popes, a dirty fork and picking up the pieces.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

• First the good news for Liz Truss. Many people (including me) have criticised politicians – at every level, note – for never apologising when things go wrong. Well, that’s now one crime that can’t be laid at the (acting) PM’s door. On 17 October she did just that, saying that she “wanted to accept responsibility and say sorry for the mistakes that have been made.” Well, fair play to her for that. As Bernie Taupin observed (and Elton John actually told us, in G minor), “sorry” indeed seems to be the hardest word.

[more below] 

• Not, of course, that this did her any good. As we now now, she has now decided to throw in the towel. Her resignation speech to a large extent undid the work of the apology: “given the situation, I cannot deliver the mandate on which I was elected by the Conservative Party.”

Well, that’s certainly one way of putting it. She could have added that the plan was hopelessly flawed, appallingly presented and lacked anything like the necessary detail and that, as a result, it spooked the markets and led to a hike in borrowing costs and thus interest rates. This is not the only cause of the country’s present state  but it sure hasn’t helped. Indeed, it could be argued that the so-called mini-budget (which was neither mini nor a budget) was a major anti-growth measure, the work of an anti-growth coalition of two. It’s very hard to think of any initiative which has backfired so comprehensively and done so much damage in such a short space of time.

• As to what happens next, Jeremy Hunt (who has ruled himelf out of running for PM) for example suggested on 16 October (which now feels like a month ago) that the next election will be in eighteen months’ time. Mind you,  two days ago he said that Liz Truss would still be PM at Christmas, so it’s clear that even last-week’s de facto leader was mis-reading the runes.

The Tory MPs, of course, didn’t want her but the members did. I think this latest experiment has convinced anyone that party members shouldn’t be allowed to choose their leader if the immediate result will be a new PM. Leave it to the MPs, who have at least been elected themselves. I think that in such cases there should be an election within six months.

Many disagree. Officially, at election time we’re voting for a candidate to represent us in the Commons. The reality, however, is that most people vote for a party and its current raft of eye-catching and unrealisable promises, rather than for a candidate of whom they may never before have heard. However, to accept that national view is the more important would immediately make proportional representation the most logical method of allocating seats, something that neither of the two largest parties would entertain. It would also remove or dilute the element of local representation; although the over-arching power of the executive in recent decades has perhaps removed or diluted this pretty well on its own.

These problems are not insoluble, particularly if you introduce the House of Lords into the equation. This bloated and largely impotent hybrid hippopotamus of a legislative chamber (which can only function at all because of the persistent absenteeism of most of its members) has defied all attempts to reform it properly. This doubtless suits the government quite well. In any case, given all the other problems facing us, reform of the House of Lords can hardly be high on any urgent to-do list for the current parliament, however long that happens to last.

• I just said that “the two largest parties” would not entertain the idea of PR and I meant, of course, Conservative and Labour. However, on 15 October, Electoral Calculus estimated that an election that day would have given the Conservatives fewer seats (48) than the SNP (52).

That would be awful for the Tories, of course, but even worse for the rest of us. Having as the official opposition a party of largely anti-English opportunists, which only about 8% of the population is able to vote for, and whose only distinguishable policy is the desire to leave the very union which currently permits them to be represented in the House of Commons at all, seems an appalling prospect. This would be particularly so because they would often be dealing with measures that had no relevance to them as they only concerned other parts of the UK.

I don’t care at all if Scotland wants to leave the UK but I certainly don’t want to have its nationalist party calling any kind of shots for the majority of people here for as long as it remains in the UK. England is the only country in Europe apart from the Vatican City which doesn’t have its own parliament. The time might have come to change this.

All that said, even if all the opposition parties could agree on anything – and when were the SNP, the Conservatives and all the rest able even able to agree that the sun rose in the east? – it would make no particular difference as Labour would, under this prediction, have 507 seats. That doesn’t seem like a good thing either.

• Nor does the general trajectory of support offer any encouragement for the government, as a glance at this Wikipedia page will clearly show. When BoJo agreed to step down on 7 July, Labour’s lead in the polls was about 12%. One would expect a change of leader to lead to some improvement. The farcical timeless-test-match approach to selecting his successor gave the population at large ample evidence for just how much many members of our ruling party disliked each other. Despite this, the Labour’s lead was still about the same when Liz Truss was declared leader on 6 September. The most recent poll (13-17 October), however, suggests that it now stands at over 30%.

Most worryingly for the Tories, the general trend has been getting worse since the so-called mini-budget on 23 September. The then de facto ruler of the country, Jeremy Hunt, a few days ago painted a picture of “eye-watering” cuts and tax rises of a severity that only someone who is not ultimately responsible can get away with. The markets are still trembling; the inflation figures seem worse than many had feared; and Putin, who is partly but not entirely the cause of this, continues as before.

It’s worth having a quick look back at the chaotic, inept and divisive events of Liz Truss’ last 24 hours…

• She’d already lost her Chancellor: on 19 October she lost her Home Secretary as well. Suella Braverman’s official line was that this was due to some procedural muddle about an email address. Judging by the tone of her resignation letter, many might feel that this technical oversight had been fabricated so she could resign on a point of honour, thus giving her an opportunity to claim moral high ground over the PM. I, however, have a different theory.

One of the hallmarks of a government which has lost the plot or failed to get to grips with an issue is to introduce new legislation to clamp down on the resulting protests. A lot of countries, such as China and Russia, do this as a matter of course. On 16 October, the then Home Secretary Suella Braverman announced that she would do just this in the UK to combat the Just Stop Oil protestors. I was sufficiently incensed by this – which is akin to trying to trying to seal up a safety valve on a steam engine rather than worrying about why it’s over-heating – to write her a pretty stiff email. Then, two days later she was gone. I think we can see cause and effect at work here. Does anyone have Xi’s or Putin’s email address so I can drop them a line? It seems worth a try.

• What’s even more remarkable is that, on the very day she resigned, she was in the Commons perpetuating the utter drivel of her PM’s anti-growth league. I thought was just a throw-away line by our new PM but it seems to have turned into  Conservative orthodoxy, or whatever passes for it these days. 

“It’s the coalition of chaos,” Suella Breverman fulminated, speaking of those who opposed her solution to the problem of protestors. “It’s the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati, dare I say, the anti-growth coalition that we have to thank for the disruption that we are seeing on our roads today.” It’s good to to see a mature and nuanced view from our (then) Home Secretary, looking seriously at the issues and coming to a conclusion that’s free of casual and lazy generalisations.

In her above-mentioned resignation letter, SB described the protestors as “selfish”. This is a strange word to choose. Disruptive, opinionated, implacable, confrontational, decisive, direct, inconvenient, unwelcome or argumentative might all be accepted (as they would have been by the suffragettes). But “selfish”? Really? How are they selfish? We can argue the toss about whether the current government has done all it might to provide a response to climate change – I think we all know the answer to that – but to brand people who think otherwise about the most universal issue the world faces as “selfish” is not only to miss the point but also to suggest that she doesn’t know what the word means. Anyway, she’s gone, leaving her own trail of rancour behind her.

But the day was not yet over.

Fracking is a divisive issue. As well as being environmentally worrying, even by fossil-fuel standards – Jacob Rees-Mogg’s support for it provides all the evidence many will need on this score – it also is deeply unpopular in many constituencies, including Conservative ones. 

Ignoring this, the government decided to turn a Labour motion on banning fracking into a no-confidence issue, although it later back-tracked on this. Tory MPs were, according to the BBC,  “effectively told they would be suspended from the parliamentary party – and have to become an independent MP – if they voted against the government.”

40 Conservative MPs abstained, including – amazingly – Chief Whip Wendy Morton, although the Deputy PM Therese Coffey perplexingly congratulated her on having done “a great job”. The PM didn’t even turn up to the vote at all. There were accusations of bullying at the vote and of at least one person being dragged through the lobby in a way which, perhaps, is not that different from what happened at the Chinese consulate in Manchester last weekend.

Tory MP Charles Walker called the situation “a shambles, a disgrace and utterly appalling,” adding that there was “no coming back” for the government from this moment. The MPs agreed and, the following day, so did Liz Truss. 45 days in power, each one worse than the one before, thus came to an end.

The Conservative Party is in an excruciating predicament. There’s no obligation to call an election: as mentioned above, we elect MPs, not the party, the leader or the manifesto. So far as I’m aware, the Tories could pick a new leader every 45 days for the next 25 months if it wished. The choice is between a certain electoral mauling now and a possibly worse one at some point in the future if things slip anchor even further. The economy always tests high at election time and that seems unlikely to improve in the near future. We’re definitely deep in the world of the least bad.

There’s also the question of political legitimacy. Despite the lack of obligation it’s going to become increasingly hard for the government to claim it has the right to be there. We also have to think of the markets. If they feel that the government can’t guarantee stability, they will continue to make the UK down which will only exacerbate the problems we already face. Putin and Xi will also be quick to take advantage of any weakness. This is no time for any drift at the top.

• The election process has been streamlined and this time, even if the final two go head-to-head in a membership ballot, the members will be clear about who the professionals have decided they want. Mind you, that was clear last time and look what happened – why are the members being asked at all? The winner will announced by 28 October. This is a great improvement on the last time round which took 60 days, 15 days longer than she was actually in power for.

• It has recently been pointed out to me that the date Sir Graham Brady has announced for the completion of the election, 28 October, is the feast of St Simon and St Jude, the latter traditionally known as the patron saint of lost causes. Read into that what you will.

• So, who might the new leader be? Sunk seems the front-runner but there’s Boris “hasta la vista” Johnson to reckon with. This grotesque twist is not impossible. He’s good at winning elections, after all. Certainly something almost miraculous will be needed if the Conservatives were able to salvage anything from this train crash. Many MPs seem to believe he still has the magic touch.

• If you’re a Conservative councillor who’s up for re-election on 4 May you should probably consider yourself as expendable collateral damage. These are probably all members of the party itself which “elected” Liz truss so perhaps that’s not completely unfair. None the less, don’t be too hard on them. Remember that, unlike with general elections, at a local level you really are voting for people who will represent you. There are several superb ward members in West Berkshire, for instance, and many of them are Conservatives.  

• There is one other option no one has mentioned. We have a new King so we could try a a period of royal absolutism and see where that takes us. He could call himself into a room in Buckingham Palace and ask himself to form a new government. Seems hard to believe: then again, so have the events of the last couple of months. Anything’s possible now.

Here’s what some other countries around the world – some of which previously had respect for our political system – have had to say about all this. It’s not a great read.

• In last week’s column I started by listing some of the many things that I didn’t understand. I see that the BBC’s Ros Atkins has recently (20 October) done the same thing. Just saying. His podcasts on various important subjects, which are featured on the BBC website, are superb.

• What else has been going on? The Chinese Consul General in Manchester has been accused of dragging a UK national onto Chinese soil in order to beat him up. Apparently banners or messages had been displayed that were critical of Xi Jinping and – in an controlled outburst of patriotic rage that of course had nothing to do do with the possibility of preferment – the Consul decided to breach diplomatic protocol and haul the guy across the line to give him a good kicking.

Perhaps these were the kind of images, ones that Xi hates so much that he’s had the Winnie the Pooh films banned in China. Quite right too – they’re utter crap. I have four sons and with all four of them in their younger days I had to sit through this Disney drivel. The books, however, are sublime works of near-genius, as are EH Shepard’s illustrations. Xi doesn’t look like the Pooh in those illustrations. Well, I suppose he does a bit. There are a lot worse people to be compared to, in fact or in fiction.

• To end, let’s move from the ridiculous to the sublime with these photos from the James Webb Telescope known as the Pillars of Creation. They’re about 6,500 light years away, which means that what we’re looking at was as it was about 2,000 years before the Pyramid of Giza was built. All the time before, and since, then this light has been travelling through the universe and is now captured by a telescope…I’m struggling with this idea, I have to tell you. In fact, the more I think about it, I’m hiding under my desk at the sheer enormity of it all. Much like our former PM, perhaps…

Across the area

• News from your local council if you live in the Vale of White Horse, Wiltshire, Swindon or West Berkshire.

• Further information on your district, county or borough council’s activities is referred to in the respective Weekly News sections for the nine areas that Penny Post covers – Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

West Berkshire’s libraries

These have recently been in the news as a result an open letter from two members of WBC’s Executive concerning contributions to a voluntary levy to help support the Library Service. As this mainly concerns Thatcham (and to some extent Newbury) I’ve looked at this matter in more detail here. Such levies can be useful as a short-term measure but do ask some questions about how things should be funded and the relationship between town and parish councils and their parent authority. With an election on the horizon, the P-word also intrudes into such discussions (and not always helpfully).

Less controversial news was announced this week with the publication of the most recent WBC Library Service Annual Report, which you can read here. The highlight, and a very welcome one, is that library usage is increasing in the district. In the six months from April to September 2022, 337,000 items were borrowed from West Berkshire Libraries (up 24% on the same period last year), 3,312 new members have joined West Berkshire Libraries (up 17%) and there were 140,464 visits to libraries have been made (up 51%).

The overall theme at the moment for West Berkshire Libraries is “We’re here for you.” Given the proposal that libraries will be turned into warm spaces to help people cope with the rocketing cost of fuel, this is likely to be put into action pretty soon. Hopefully Covid won’t have anything to say about this.

Food recycling

The new weekly food waste collection system will start in West Berkshire on 31 October (and on 28 November for households which receive a communal bin store collection).

We’ve been in touch with West Berkshire’s Waste Manager about this a couple of times in the last few weeks and you can click here to see a separate post we’ve done on the subject. As well as being environmentally beneficial, financially advantageous and legislatively compliant, the scheme may also reduce food waste by confronting us with the consequences of what we throw away. Like any new measure, of course, it will take time for us to get used to it. Give t a few weeks and see how it goes…

A service of thanksgiving

A service of thanksgiving for the late Queen Elizabeth II will be held in Newbury next month. This will be an opportunity for West Berkshire to come together to remember Queen Elizabeth II and celebrate her life. It will reflect her connections with West Berkshire and fondness for horse racing and give thanks for her lifetime of service to the country and its people.

The service will take place at St Nicholas Church at 7.00 pm on Friday 4 November. Among the almost 500 guests to be invited to the service will be district councillors and town and parish councillors representing communities across West Berkshire and local members of parliament. The service will be led by the Rev Will Hunter Smart, Rector of St Nicolas Church. Local residents are also invited to attend the service but must book online in advance. Tickets are available until Monday 31 October on a first come, first served basis. (WBC said on 18 October that “it’s likely that the tickets, once available, will be on our online booking platform:  however, details will be confirmed in due course.) The service will be streamed online on the St Nicholas Church YouTube channel.

Speaking ahead of the service, Chairman of West Berkshire Council Rick Jones said: “Last month we saw an outpouring of love and respect for the Queen following the news of her death. Nationally and locally communities came together to mourn her passing and now it’s time to celebrate a life well lived and to say thank you her lifetime of service.”

Sticks and stones

Last week, I wrote in this column (see Abuse, political or otherwise) about this matter which was, at a local level, highlighted by some comments made by WBC’s Leader Lynne Doherty. Given the fertile atmosphere in Westminster and the forthcoming local elections, not only actual abuse but also the accusation of it are likely to increase.

Several letters in this week’s Newbury Weekly News have picked up on this theme and some correspondents have gone further in expressing their views than did I. Threats of violence, vicious personal accusations and the like are, of course, right out. However, there’s also a broad spectrum of political name-calling which can be regarded as abuse depending on who has made it, what the context was and how we happen to be feeling at the time. Every writer and every recipient will draw the line in a different place. It’s also probably true that we are all a lot more conscious of remarks that we find offensive than we are of making remarks which others might do. Politics, even at a local level, can be a dirty business.

I want to repeat my statement that I think pretty much all the councillors I’ve ever dealt with are decent people, even though I may at times disagree with what they’re doing. If you think one of them is on the wrong track, then say so. Adding that you think they’re a moron, a satanist or a sadist doesn’t strengthen your argument: quite the reverse. Mind you, as I mentioned last week and have more cause to repeat this week, with Westminster as an example and line-crossing on a local level is not really that surprising.

A coat of paint

If your house is anything like ours, you have several tins of paint ranging from 10% to 90% full left over from previous decorating projects, the contents of all of which are slowly hardening. They’re difficult to throw away, not only because of the need to dispose of them properly but also because of the nagging feeling that one day they’ll be useful (like all those keys in the back of a dresser drawer, they almost certainly won’t be).

West Berkshire Council has announced an initiative to help with this problem. It will shortly be introducing “a new community paint re-use service at the Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRC) at Newbury and Padworth. Community Repaint allows residents to drop off left over paint at either of our HWRCs in the usual way. Staff at the HWRC will assess the paint and see if it is in a good enough condition to be re-used.” Click here for more information.

The cost-of-living hub

The new West Berkshire Cost of Living Hub, which is being created to support those facing financial hardship this winter, will be open to residents from Monday 24 October.

Local people can find advice and support around cost of living issues with a wealth of information available on our hub website. Staff will also be able to provide advice and match residents’ needs with the support available both nationally and locally, including from local charities and voluntary organisations. The initiative has been set up by West Berkshire Council in partnership with Greenham Trust and the Volunteer Centre West Berkshire, and will work closely with the local community and voluntary sector. Click here for more information.

Other news

Schools are being invited to participate in a competition to rename the London Road Industrial Estate.

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

• Local charity Connecting Communities in Berkshire (CCB) has stressed that help is available for those struggling with rising energy bills. CCB has been running a project tackling fuel poverty for 10 years and can provide expertise in supporting low-income families that are struggling with the recently confirmed price rises. For more information, contact Helen Dean on helen.dean@ccberks.org.uk or visit www.ccberks.org.uk.

Click here for the best coverage we’ve seen of all things football-related in Berkshire.

Click here for the latest museums newsletter from WBC.

• Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Click here to visit WBC’s business website.

Click here for details of consultations currently being run by WBC.

Click here for the latest libraries newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest Covid newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest waste and recycling newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest residents’ newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest business newsletter from WBC.

Click here for the latest environmental newsletter from WBC.

• You can click here to choose to receive all or any of West Berkshire Council’s e-newsletters.

• See also the sections for Wantage, Marlborough and Swindon for initiatives from Vale of White Horse Council, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Council and the various towns and parishes.

• Click here for a post listing the various places which are offering a takeaway and/or delivery service. If you are aware of any others, let us know.

• The animals of the week are the hippos that were introduced into Columbia by the late drug baron Pablo Escobar. The bad news for the hippos is that, because they have spread so widely and so well in the wild, their numbers need to be managed. One solution is to castrate the alpha males. Have you ever tried to do this? Nor have I.

• The letters section of the Newbury Weekly News includes, as well as ones referred to elsewhere, communications on the subjects of the energy price cap, football, imperial measurements, a wrong word, long letters, constitutional reform and plenty of politics being played.

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• So here we are at the  Song of the Week. If you’ve been waiting to see an all-female Japanese band dressed entirely in yellow perform a pretty damn good cover version of an Average White Band song then this is your lucky week – give it up for The Jazz Avengers and Pick up the Pieces.

• And next up is the Comedy Sketch of the Week. We wind right the way back to, goodness me, 1971, for another look at Monty Python’s Dirty Fork.

• So that brings us to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: who is: Roughly how many plant Earths could fit inside the sun? Last week’s question was: How many Popes are there per square kilometre in the Vatican City? The answer is 4.54. The area of the Vatican City is 0.44 sq km and so, were there but one Pope, there would be 2.27 of them per sq km. As it happens, though, the place is blessed with two: the current incumbent, Francis; and his predecessor Benedict XVI who resigned in 2013 but could still be regarded as Pontifical, even if an ex (ex-Benedict, in fact). So, 4,54 per sq km. This contrasts with the population density of Australia, which is only 3.3 per sq km. Statistically, you’re therefore nearly 40% more likely to run into a Pope in the Vatican City than you are to run into an Australian in Australia.

For weekly news sections for Lambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area please click on the appropriate link

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