A Salutary Tale

SundayTimesdebaucheryheadlineToday’s news media is full of stories about the casual misogyny and sexually predatory culture of the Palace of Westminster ( not just the Commons, though that features more often than the Lords ). This isn’t new. When I was writing Plague (Claret Press, 2020) I was taken to task by one of the readers of an early manuscript. She commented on my depiction of a male dominated, testosterone fuelled, hard drinking place, in which women MPs were treated as decorative, or routinely verbally abused and female civil servants and Parliamentary researchers ‘fair game’, saying it was incorrect to such a degree that no one would believe it in the twenty-first century. I begged to differ.

If you haven’t read Plague, be prepared for some spoilers, courtesy of the newspapers.

Of course, not all male, or female, MPs and Peers behave in such an ante-diluvian fashion, but there is aSunday Postdebauchery significant minority who do, as recently confirmed by the current, female, Attorney General, and witness the recent resignation of Neil Parish. The Palace is an unique and strange workplace, with MPs often far from home and under tremendous pressure, from their peers as well as the Whips. There is many an decent, family man (and they do tend to be men, but this isn’t exclusively male) in his constituency who lives a rather different life in Westminster. The ready availability of alcohol (or the stimulant of your choice) doesn’t help either. Catherine Bennett’s article in today’s Observer newspaper lists some examples from the Tory benches (see here).

Believe it or not, television in the chamber and the increasing number of women in Parliament has meant some improvement. Gone are the days when there was no debating cut-off time and the bars would be open (and full) until one or two in the morning, when MPs would spill out (sometimes quite literally) into the chamber to vote. It was a very tough woman who survived in that environment, though they have to be tough today too – witness the torrent of abuse poured on an MP like Diane Abbott. One of my villains is an MP who routinely regards women as prey and another a Lord who aids and abets him.

Cover_Template.inddBut back to Plague. We have been here before, when the media, or those parts of it more interested in fact than propaganda, reported on the scandals around PPE (and other) contracts handed, without competition, to cronies and the special ‘VIP lane’ of government procurement. There have been successful court cases branding the behaviour of the government unlawful.

The syphoning of money from the public purse into the pockets of cronies and allies via large government contracts is one constituent part of my villain’s modus operandi. My publishers even made a podcast programme about it COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism, which is still available, because the parallels were so obvious. Said villain has made a fortune in the City, he talks about the power of money and the super wealthy using the City to launder ill-gotten gains and buy up property. One of his international associates is a Russian oligarch in London.

Thus far the only other major element in the crime plot of Plague which hasn’t made the headlines is the murders (no one would want that to be real). Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on my heroine’s view of the Palace of Westminster when considering this weekend’s stories. I suspect there’s more to come.

Whitehall lay in front of them. At its far end, she saw the Palace of Westminster. The Elizabeth Tower was still shrouded in scaffolding, obscuring the clock face. Green netting was wound around the west face of St Stephen’s Porch. What else enmeshed the Palace and those within it? Had the corruption already taken hold, bringing its odour as surely as the subterranean Tyburn, flowing beneath it, brought the stench of putrefaction?

Voting in Spain

Amid all the Brexit turmoil ( though it’s gone suspiciously quiet recently – could it suit the two main party leaders to drift towards the Euro Elections I wonder ) we might forget that the polarisation of politics is going on in plenty of places other than the UK.

A ray of hope therefore from Spain.  On Sunday Spain went to the polls for the third time in four years after Pedro Sanchez’ minority government of only 84 deputies ( out of 350 seats in the Congress of Deputies ) failed to secure enough support for its budget.  This followed a period in which, since 2015, Spain has had no single strong ruling party, voters having returned the equivalent of a UK hung Parliament. This also coincided with the rise of the first extreme right-wing party – Vox – since Franco’s death in 1975 ( see Vox ).

The turnout was up, at 75%+, despite a degree of election fatigue. There was speculation, at least among my Spanish friends, that this was in reaction to the  apparent voter apathy which allowed Vox to take its first seats at regional level – in Andalucia and Extramadura – and a determination that this should not be repeated at the national level.

The result – an increased number of seats, up to 123, for Sanchez’ Socialists (PSOE) a left of centre social democratic party.  PSOE is now the largest block in the Cortes. In second place, just, the Partido Popular with only 67 seats, followed closely in third by Ciudadanos with 57.  The last of these, though tacking to the right, went nowhere near as far as the PP, which tried to steal Vox’s thunder.  Alberto Rivera, Ciudadanos leader says he wants to lead the opposition, but already media ( and many Spaniards I spoke with ) like the look of a PSOE Ciudadanos coalition.  A coalition of the centre.

I enjoyed watching the TV coverage in the run up and on election night.  My TV aerial was not functioning well so I watched the results come in on a channel I wouldn’t normally watch politics on, which made it even more interesting. Think Peter Snow, but in faded jeans, and speaking even more quickly, as coloured columns rise and fall around him.

I also went to check out the local polling station, in the large Post Office building near to us. I went along at lunchtime on Sunday and there was a long queue of voters snaking round the large room.  The Spanish system uses the D’Hondt method of proportional representation ( the same to be used in the forthcoming European Parliament elections ) with parties having lists of candidates.  I gathered up the listings, as well as a ballot paper (see photo above). One of my neighbours then went to register and cast her vote in a temporary voting booth ( which looked suspiciously like a temporary shower ).

On Sunday there was the leisurely perusal of the results in papers local and national.  The right-wing vote had fragmented, the centre had held. On-line and to the BBC and one could be forgiven for not noticing that the centrist socialists had won at all, so focused was the story on the rise of Vox.  That party did become the fifth largest, but did not do as well as many predicted and had itself proclaimed it would.  It’s sad to see the BBC so in thrall to what one can only describe as ‘click-bait’ news reporting.

Now it’s back to London, where the skies are less blue.  For more on Spanish politics and the remarkable trajectory of Pedro Sanchez see            All Change in Spain                                    Democracy III

Cheating

To cheat (verb trans)  To deceive by trickery; swindle: to mislead; fool: to elude. To act dishonestly; practice fraud;tviolate rules deliberately.

I, like many, am gripped by the drama that is unfolding at Westminster .  As someone who watches the Parliamentary Channel every so often, it’s good to know that I am no longer alone, others are tuning in too. Yet I suspect that many more are not, they just want it over.

One of the problems for me with watching events like this is the anger which attends it.  I find myself waking up at night, furious.  This was something a friend said to me a year or more ago and I sympathised, but didn’t quite understand. Now I do.  So where does that anger come from?

Is it, as Brexit supporters would have it, because I am unused to losing and being powerless?  Or because I cannot accept what living in a democracy means if ‘my side’ doesn’t win?

Having lived through the Thatcher years, when decisions which were bad for the country but good for Tory party elect-ability were taken again and again (encouraging people to buy their council houses at knock-down prices without building replacements, the selling off of prime utilities ) I don’t think that’s the case.  I remember powerlessness, when a split opposition allowed ten years and more of Thatcher or Thatcherite rule and the huge bonuses from North Sea oil were squandered in tax cuts and benefits payments.  And I was angry, but it didn’t invade my life like it does now.

Is it because I have immediate ‘skin in the game’ a horrible phrase?  As someone who has to operate in Euros as well as sterling, Brexit has already hit my pocket in a way it hasn’t yet for many ( though it will ).

No, that might make me a little angry, but it doesn’t account for this deep fury, a dissonance at my core. I think that is where the answer lies .  I am having trouble accepting what is happening because it runs counter to everything I have been brought up to believe.

That cheating is wrong.

That winning by cheating isn’t winning and that the rules won’t let it stand.

Ben Johnson may have won the Olympic hundred metres while doping, but he didn’t get to  keep the medal.  Lance Armstrong may have ruled the Tour de France (and ruined the careers of those who wouldn’t dope or support doping) but eventually he was found our and disgraced. Shirley Porter jerry-mandered a local election* but had to flee to Israel before making reparation.

Now, I am not the young child who cries ‘But it isn’t fair!’  I know that life isn’t fair. Nor am I the food bank user, or the woman juggling two zero hours jobs with childcare. There are many who are much worse off than me and who could, rightly, consider that they, personally, had been treated unfairly (the claimants of disability allowance who are denied because the operatives of the privatised system are told they must discourage claims, for instance, or the Universal Credit claimant told she has to wait six weeks for payment of money due to her, so she cannot feed her children).

But I also believe that people, generally, believe in fairness and justice.  If we lose that belief it will leave everyone the poorer and the UK a mean and bitter place. In another conversation, with a leaver friend, I was asked, but if there was so much law breaking and wrong doing why hasn’t something been done about it?  For her – someone who has the same value system as me –  the lack of accountability demonstrated that there wasn’t really anything major wrong.

I guess the sad truth is that people who might do something about this stand to gain more by not applying basic laws and rules than by applying them ( and I include disaster socialists here as well as disaster capitalists ).  The Referendum was advisory, so its result is not binding.  Electoral law was broken (a 10% overspend and funding from unknown sources), which would, were this a properly binding election, mean that the result would be set aside.  People like Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham try, but the powerful continue regardless.

This is why I am angry.

I still believe that eventually those in charge, as well as the cheats, charlatans and liars, will be brought to account.  But by then the damage may well have been done.

*The now infamous ‘homes for votes’ scandal.