Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: July, 2016

What did Theresa May’s letters from the grave to the bottom of the sea actually say?

As soon as the door shut  behind  her on entering  No 10, Theresa May will have been taken aside by Sir Nicholas Houghton, Chief of the Defence Staff,  and asked to handwrite four letters to the commanders of the submarines hidden away at the bottom of the sea  that continuously protect the United Kingdom  from an unknown enemy. .

Writing the so called ‘letters of last resort’ is the anachronistic practice that reminds Prime Ministers of the seriousness of the job. Tony Blair went white at the prospect. John Major asked for the weekend to think about it. The missives are locked away in a safe and no one knows what  the Prime Minister has ordained. They are instructions from the grave.

Sir Nicholas might suggest that the Prime Minister tells the Commander to put himself ( there are not yet any women submariners)under the command of the United Sates, if it still exists,  to fire the missiles or to make his own mind up.  It is not a multi choice question paper. Once she had made her mind up and  licked the envelopes,  Theresa May could  pick up the phone to offer Boris Johnson a job.

Before opening the envelope, the Commander checks that government has really  been blown away by trying to tune into Radio Four. If John Humphreys is off air and Ambridge is silent, he  is on his own.  A 15 minute technical breakdown at the BBC a few years ago, put the Navy on full alert.

By the time the Commander reads his orders, he will have cooped up for months with no news of his family and be  facing the prospect that the United Kingdom has been destroyed. The only purpose of firing his weapons is revenge. I hope the Prime Minister would tell him to beach up on a desert island and play his gramophone records. It is, after all, the only decision she can make without fear of the political consequences or the judgement of posterity.

Mrs May told the first meeting of  her cabinet, cramped around a table on a very  hot  morning, that they were not there to play games.  If games were allowed, Monopoly would appropriate  but you would need more elbow room to throw the dice. They had played games the previous day with a debate on building a new generation of nuclear submarines. The event had been set up by David Cameron to embarrass the Labour Party.

Having argued here two weeks ago that big decisions are best made by Parliament, I eat my heart out. There was an overwhelming majority of 335 in favour of spending  ten times  the  cost of the  Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns  on toys for the bath.

Theresa May was unequivocal when challenged in opening the debate.  She would press the button sending 100,000 people and probably many more to their deaths.  She would say that wouldn’t she?  The whole point of the deterrent is to bluff your opponent into believing you would retaliate.  I greatly  admire Jeremy Corbyn’s principle  of unilateral disarmament but it rather blows the gaff on a £200bn investment if you tell everyone that you would  not use the weapon in anger.

The most despicable reason for building four new submarines is to save the jobs of 30,000 workers in the defence industry which is, according to Stephen Kinnock MP “reliably and consistently creating sustainable, highly skilled and well paid jobs outside London”.  Ticks all the boxes then apart from fatalities.

The most savage  attack came from  the rising star Mhairi Black, who asked  why we are denied  hospitals, schools and  benefits on grounds of austerity but can find the money for submarines.  It is as mad as putting letters in the post to submarine commanders.

Hardly anyone, outside the Navy, has confidence in submarine warfare anymore.  By the time they dive under the waves in 2028, submarines  will have been overtaken by drones and cyber warfare. The money would be better spent on the conventional weapons  that were so sadly lacking in Iraq. But 472 well informed and thoughtful  members of parliament think otherwise, so who am I to say?

In the event, David Cameron need not have bothered.  The Labour Party created far greater embarrassments of its own. After a botched coup, its leading figures are in hiding.  Constituency meetings  have been cancelled for fear of bullying. Newspaper adverts encourage everyone to pay £25 to buy a vote. A once mighty political force which at least anguished about whether to ban the bomb is in chaos.  Come September, Jeremy Corbyn  will  be re- elected and the circus will come round again. Good government cries out for opposition. The job should not be left to Mhairi Black and her chums.

Mrs May has made an  impressive start acting far more boldly than anyone had foreseen. But this is the most right wing government in my lifetime. It will favour the bankers, bankroll the defence industry and  ignore the planet . Unless there is a stronger opposition, the Tories really will be playing monopoly with our lives. Don’t believe the fine doorstep words from Theresa May; Mayfair will win and Old Kent Road lose out as ever was.








Great loser in the referendum was the referendum itself

Striding across Exmoor on that fateful day in the footsteps of Wordsworth and Coleridge, we should have been debating matters of state or at least composing poetry.

We had left Combe Martin not long after the polling stations opened with not much hope of finding a country inn until we reached Lynton that evening. The cliff top path was exhilarating, the weather was set fair and Thursday 23rd June was by far the best day’s walk of the entire week.

My own literary moment was to post that my companion and I had not shirked our responsibilities as citizens. By organising postal votes, I had voted to remain and he to leave resulting in the dead heat that the polls predicted.

“He voted  leave!” a friend immediately commented “you should have thrown him off the cliff”. The following morning my Brexit nephew replied  that I would have needed to push all gadarene swine over the edge to have stayed in Europe.

In the recriminations that followed, harsh words were unfairly said about the lumpen attitudes of the leavers in particular. Long walks are great opportunities for conversation but the truth was that neither of us could mount a sustained and coherent argument for our decision. As Winston Churchill said “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”

Like nearly everyone else, we placed our cross from a mixture of beliefs, half truths and prejudices fuelled by what Michael Dougan calls “dishonesty on an industrial scale” from those leading the campaign. Check out his video.

The great loser in the referendum was the referendum itself. It is “the nuclear weapon of democracy” according to the diplomat Jeremy Kinsman. We should have known better. Look at how the sensible folk of New Zealand got themselves into a tizzy by voting in two referendums to choose a new flag before renewing their allegiance to an anachronistic old one. Ask yourself why the politicians have never allowed a referendum on capital punishment? They know it is a high risk tactic unlikely to produce their desired result.

David Cameron took a huge and unwarranted risk because he lacked the nerve to face out his party over Europe  and the courage to shout down  the UKIP hordes at the gate. Like Tony Blair, he should have considered the likely consequences of his decisions. There needs to a check on prime ministerial whim.

If Angela Leadsom had not pulled out, it would have taken 150,000 Tory party members a long drawn out summer of indecision to elect the next prime minister whilst on the other side of the street the long running show is still packing in half a million and more carpetbaggers for a small entrance fee. If you ask me, and it gives no pleasure to say so,  Jeremy Corbyn should follow her example. A party leader must have the overwhelming support of the parliamentary party.

Neither am I convinced by elected mayors in our own backyard, especially when one of the candidates derides career politicians and says he will not take a penny in pay. Alright if you can afford it, Jeremy.

We need Canute to hold back the tide of so called democracy in an age where it has never been easier to sign a petition or vote celebrities off the dance floor.  The American political scientist James Fishkin said: “In an poll, we ask people what they think when they don’t think. It would be more interesting to ask what they think after they had a chance to think”.

The Irish distinguished themselves by reviving the ancient Greek idea of appointing a representative group of 66 people to work alongside 33 politicians to revise the constitution though their recommendations were subject  to ratification by parliament and then, tantalisingly, by a referendum.

The trouble with all these more inclusive ways of making a decision is that they do not stick at the end of the day. If another referendum choses remain, would there be calls for the best of three?

We are a parliamentary democracy which traditionally elects members of parliament to make the difficult decisions for us. I was dismayed that parliament voted to go to war with Iraq, based on faulty facts and in the face of a million protesters. I will be heartbroken when the Commons makes an immoral and reckless decision to renew Trident next week. I can only lobby and join a march.

But I still think that a vote in the House provides the best combination of thought, debate and decisiveness and that the parliamentary party is in the best position to elect its leader. If it had been left to members of parliament, we would still be in Europe by a much larger majority than the referendum voted to leave. We would also have party leaders who could get the job done.

William Wordsworth’s youthful enthusiasm for the democratic ideals he had witnessed in Paris in the aftermath of the French revolution mellowed as he marched across the mountain tops in later life. Our own revolution is not a march of progress to my mind and leaves me similarly weary of foot in my old age.

published in Newcastle Journal on Tuesday 12th July