qatsi: (urquhart)
Book Review: Kompromat, by Stanley Johnson
I hesitated over this one in the work book sale, as I wasn't sure I had the stomach for it, but in the end decided to "feel the fear and do it anyway". After all, it's a charity event, and this season's charity at work is Alzheimer's UK, so it's a good cause and no money goes to any member of the Johnson family.

In the introductory "Author's Note" it is stated that "Kompromat is, to use an old-fashioned term, An Entertainment". In other words, there is no pretence to higher literary ground. Spoilers )

Where the book does score, though, is on making you reflect on the "democratisation" of information via the Internet. Twenty years or more ago, there were a limited number of media outlets, and whilst they could provide a wide range of views and opinions, one could in general be fairly confident about the provenance of their information, and that factual errors would not go uncorrected. But when anyone can put out any story and watch it go viral from within an echo chamber to the wider world, it's inevitable that many people will exhibit confirmation bias. (I'm not suggesting that anyone is immune from confirmation bias, but I'd like to think people should in general be aware of the possibility of it and try to control for it.) Indeed, the current state of affairs seems to be that many people don't care about "truth" if what they are given fits their existing beliefs - including the closing down or drowning out of opposing points of view. The Internet is a genie that's out of the bottle, and it's not going back in. Ultimately, I suspect those who have chosen not to hear warnings about fake news will be the ones who suffer most as a result, but if fake news continues, then they will always have someone else to blame. In my darker moments, I think about that term in the Drake equation about the length of time a civilisation exists, and I wonder if opposing groups, discarding evidence and shouting their views at each other angrily without listening, is how it ends.
qatsi: (urquhart)
Book Review: The Strange Death of Liberal England, by George Dangerfield
This had been on my to-read list for quite a while and the inconclusive aftermath of the [first] 2017 General Election seemed as good a time as any to pick it up, especially since there had been no rebirth of "Liberal England". (Not that increasing the Lib Dems' seats by 50% wasn't a good result - but it's still a fraction of the number in the 2010-2015 parliament).

Dangerfield identifies a prologue, and three main threads, in the politics of the period 1906-1914: firstly, he deals with the House of Lords, and its ubiquitous role in blocking Liberal policies from the House of Commons. Ultimately this behaviour resulted in the Parliament Act, but it's a situation that is still not fully resolved today. The three main issues are of Irish Home Rule, Women's Suffrage, and Industrial Relations. On Irish Home Rule, Dangerfield presents a curious picture in which the Tories seem to oppose change largely for the sake of opposing it; the Unionist position in Ulster is presented as extremist, and desirous of belonging to some fantasy Union that doesn't actually exist - a situation that hardly seems altered today with the DUP, given that I have never felt I have much in common with those who claim to represent Northern Ireland and its desire to remain part of the UK. On the question of suffrage, Dangerfield writes almost exclusively about the cult of personality surrounding Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. Their campaign is presented as violent and absurd; but the debate and progress (or rather, lack thereof) on the issue in Parliament is presented as equally absurd, and it becomes difficult to work out which came first. On industrial relations, the situation is just a mess, but unfortunately it is reminiscent in some ways of today, with extreme and ill-thought grass-roots positions undermining and replacing more moderate Union leadership, and a range of attitudes among employers, from enlightened through to abusive.

The cumulative effect of reading about these is to reveal how safe and orderly Britain is today, given that only the suffrage issue is incontrovertibly resolved (though, in Dangerfield's writing, the Suffragettes' campaign is the most consistently violent of the three); the polarised political situation on Brexit and its economic implications does bear some resemblance with the industrial issues of a century ago. Dangerfield doesn't actually synthesise how these threads caused the death of Liberal England, rather assuming the general atrophying political climate (which again, is surely echoed today) produces this outcome, but leaves the outbreak of World War I as his ending point. The choice of the word "England" in the title would make our contemporary sensitivities bristle, but Scotland barely gets a mention at all, and there's not much about Wales either.
qatsi: (urquhart)
We were on holiday in Portugal when news of the Grenfell Tower fire broke. As such, we probably didn't get the wall-to-wall coverage a major incident in London would provide to a domestic audience, although we certainly gleaned the grim details and the abject failure by the Prime Minister in visiting emergency services but not victims. (In contrast, the Queen did visit; but I don't think that's especially comparable. She's explicitly not a political figure and her privilege - like it or not - stems from a different provenance. Though I do wonder whether the folk memory of the bombing of Buckingham Palace in World War 2 - and the 1992 Windsor Castle fire - might have played their part.) Blair or Cameron, or even Brown, would have done better.

May's role, however, just reminded me more and more of Francis Urquhart in The Final Cut. When it was first broadcast in 1995, I felt it was a weak final instalment of the trilogy; the contemptuous attitudes of Urquhart and his government had gone beyond satire. I re-watched it this weekend, and it no longer seems so unbelievably bitter, because we all know that life itself has gone beyond satire in the last year or so. Urquhart's undoing is the death of a schoolgirl in a shoot-out between British troops and a paramilitary group in Cyprus, in a situation brought about directly as a result of his orders to the armed forces, which in turn is indirectly intended to benefit himself financially.

Neither the poor owner of the faulty fridge-freezer nor the manufacturer can be held responsible for the resulting inferno beyond a single flat; what idiocy produced a process that allowed the building to be refurbished with the materials that were used? I imagine the local council's motivation was cost-cutting rather than malevolence (and, as I don't know the chronology, they may be able to claim they were using cladding on the basis that other councils had used it too); but it inevitably brings to mind the corruption of T Dan Smith. The council plainly had no effective plan for a major incident that required re-housing, either. Unlike Urquhart, this tragedy isn't May's fault personally; but May has played her part in creating the culture that has allowed it to happen. It seems to me that her legacy is already set: the wheels are coming off, one aspect of the country after another (security, housing, NHS) falling apart after years of austerity and weakening of safeguards.

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