Well, what a strange and trying year, even for such as me who has been little affected by the universal plague of Covid-19. Lockdown was, after all, a mere prolongation (but what a prolongation!) of my precautionary isolation as a result of the lymphoma. As to that, so far so good: I completed the course of chemotherapy at Barts on my birthday on 3 February just as the Covid worries were beginning, and have since felt pretty well: liable to get exhausted more quickly than before and not to go upstairs three at a time, but relieved of the problem of whether to go out to meetings or theatre by there being nothing to go to! I’ve had two PET scans and several blood tests that have all been clear and after a telephone consultation with my consultant last week my next appointment with him is in April.
So, no foreign travels to report on, nor conferences, nor plays or films, nor visits to or from friends, so maybe this letter will be shorter than usual (but a warning: I’ve been reading more books than usual!) What then is there to report? Well, Lois started the year in Uganda with her friend Min (another trustee of the EHTU – Education and Health Trust Uganda) running training in palliative care and other projects. She got home on 1 February but plans for a new trip have had to be postponed owing to Covid travel problems and now the risk of getting caught up in the appalling violence as the presidential election approaches. Meanwhile she spends an appreciable time every day in touch with the people there whom we are helping and collaborating with: we have recently updated the website so you can see more at www.ehtuganda.org.
As expected, Lindsay and Jamila decided (before Covid) to leave London for less overpriced Sheffield. After they moved out of Wood Green Jamila took a trip to see her family in Salt Lake City and was caught there by travel restrictions for longer than planned; meanwhile Lindsay moved in here and camped in our dining room where he spent a fair time developing artistic projects. In the good weather the three of us sat under the pergola for morning coffee and talk – often of more (Lindsay) or less (Lois and me) radical politics! Early in July they both arrived at a temporary flat in Sheffield within ten minutes of each other, but they moved to a second-floor flat in an attractive converted house at the start of September where they will be for at least a year. When they planned the move to Sheffield they did not anticipate difficulties finding work but of course that situation changed. However, Jamila has just started a new NHS research admin job and Lindsay is doing some part-time cleaning to give him a break from art – some of which is paid, some developing ideas of his own. His graphic novel Vanni has sold moderately without mainstream reviews here but with excellent reviews in the specialist and some foreign press.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_4872-1024x768.jpg
The pergola in autumn

Meanwhile Christina and Stephen (and Paige, Tiahna, Patrick, Lucy, Abigail and Serenity) have left their temporary (attractive but expensive) rented house in Redmarshall and have bought a nearby five-bedroom house on a fairly new estate on the outskirts of Stockton-on-Tees where they seem to have fitted in very happily. Stephen works from home overseeing the installation of high-tech office systems – distance makes no difficulties! – while Paige has a job with NHS111 and the others have all found their feet in their schools and are doing well – indeed, Christina found herself home-schooling the youngest two with some success.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Christina-and-Stephen-2020-1.jpg
Christina and Stephen

During a less demanding Covid regime in July and August, before they moved, Lois and I went north to see them all. We stayed in Airbnb places, first in Sheffield, where we saw Linds and Jam only in the open air – the fascinating old cemetery, the excellent botanical gardens, the Rivelin river valley walk. We did visit Christina and Stephen at home but mainly saw them out on excursions: to Saltwick Bay (where we went fossil fossicking), the Tees barrage, Runswick Bay (two sunny days on this delightful beach with rocks and cliffs), the RSPB reserve at Saltholme, Eggleston Hall gardens and Cow Green reservoir on the moors further up. We drove through the notorious Barnard Castle but were unable to go to the Beamish museum owing to Covid regulations.

Patrick & Lucy and joint building effort
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_4586-768x1024.jpg
Jamila & Lindsay in the old cemetery

Covid has restricted other family encounters. My niece Lucy visited with her boyfriend in August; otherwise it has been emails and Zoom! In an uneventful year Lois and I have had occasional walks round Woodberry Wetlands, the gardens at Forty Hall, and the towpath in the local Lea Valley. We took trips in July to Lesnes Abbey and Abbey Woods, and to the Surrey sculpture park (a gallery with several hundred sculptures on display in a wooded valley with a lake), in September to Dungeness and Derek Jarman’s garden and then to Horace Walpole’s Gothic extravaganza at Strawberry Hill, and in October to the Watts gallery in Surrey which I visited back in 2006 before its renovation when Mark Bills, who had just been appointed director, invited me down: I knew him as curator of prints and drawings at the Museum of London when I was volunteering there, recataloguing their prints and drawings and helping him a bit with a major exhibition on satire.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is David-Lois-Lindsay-at-Abbey-Woods-1024x779.jpg
At Abbey Woods
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_4555-1024x768.jpg
Surrey sculpture park

What else is there to report? Not much: I had to change my email address as a result of utter incompetence and uncooperativeness by Virgin, and this has caused endless problems in Outlook, still not entirely solved. A change of broadband supplier went more smoothly. I have continued scanning old photos, completing all the old prints and returning to the slides I left out the first time round. The garden has been marking time, not helped by the romps of a brood of five fox cubs; Lindsay helped me with some heavy work when the water started leaking from the top of the rockery and flooding the terrace; and we had to have work done on the roof in June.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_4430-1024x768.jpg
The rockery after repair

We played bridge in person until March & once in Sharon’s garden in September, but some of us played online during the summer with a simultaneous WhatsApp video link for chat and post-hand analysis. What I have referred to previously as ‘my group of vaguely NCB-related friends’ is now meeting weekly by Zoom and is rechristened the Foolow group after the village where Tony & Phyllis live. However, they did call on me in January and Sheila visited in February, when I was on my personal lockdown, and we all went to Foolow in August. Another ex-Coal Board friend, Phil, visited me in February and later arranged Zoom gatherings for that group in July and September, with another pending.

With Lindsay

Zoom has me pinned to the computer for more-or-less weekly chats with humanist friends, and occasional ones with the large local group we call the Wrinklies, as also for lectures and less formal talks organised (among others) by a local history group and by Humanists UK, whose board meetings are now on Zoom, as are the weekly update meetings of its Policy and Public Affairs team for which as a key volunteer I join the relevant staff. The Hackney SACRE meetings are on Zoom as will be its future working group on RSE (relationships and sex education) set up as a result of local Charedi Jewish objections to contaminating the snow-white innocence of their offspring who need to know nothing until an eve-of-marriage chat with a rabbi – I exaggerate not!
I have spent a great deal of time, as usual, on humanist work, partly assisting marginally with research for the history of the Union of Ethical Societies (1896) which became the Ethical Union and then the British Humanist Association and is now Humanists UK, but principally helping the highly skilled Public Affairs and Policy staff team on many subjects including reform of the laws on judicial review, on hate crime, on various aspects of religion in schools, but mainly this year on our effort to get humanist marriages legally recognised. The judicial review that we were preparing last year, fronted by six humanist couples, came to a (Skype) High Court hearing in early July. Preparation for it involved research of the history of humanist ceremonies and of the peculiar religious groups allowed to do legally recognised weddings (the Aetherius Society, for example, which was founded in the 1950s by a London taxi-driver to worship the entities who came from outer space to create human civilisation a few thousand years ago) and then drafting of witness statements, video-conferencing with our excellent lawyers (all working at cut-price and conditional rates) and endless critiquing of the Government’s increasingly wild claims: for example, having for years maintained that humanist marriages could not be recognised without primary legislation, they claimed for the sake of defending the case that they were already possible, if for example a humanist celebrant was appointed as a registrar or a registrar happened to be a humanist. Ridiculous, but to take it apart required thorough research on the duties and terms of employment of registrars and much else.
When the judgement came a month after the hearing the judge agreed 100% with our legal case but decided not to make the declaration of incompatibility (of the present law with human rights law) that we were seeking because she felt the Government deserved more time to think about the matter! This after the history of the last seven years (2013: Parliament legislates for humanist marriages subject to a public consultation; 2014: the consultation finds overwhelming support; but Government calls in Law Commission to examine the question in context; 2015: the Law Commission ‘scoping’ report seeks a remit to review marriage law in its entirety; from 2016: a gap of three and a half years, during which the Government does nothing, only accepting the Law Commission’s idea of a wide review in mid-2019 when threatened with judicial review). At the time of our case the Commission had not even published a consultation paper. Now the consultation paper is out, with some proposals that we see as seriously ill-considered that would risk a demeaning commercialisation of marriage, so now I’m deeply involved with our response to the proposals. The Commission says it will try to report by the end of 2021, but after that the Government has to decide whether to act, and even if it does it could have a white paper and a draft Bill before legislating. That way we do not see reform being implemented in under three or four years at the very best – especially as under half the Commission’s reports from 2011 to 2015 have been implemented and none of those published since!
So we are hoping to be able to appeal, which if we win will put greater pressure on the Government to use the power it has had ever since 2013 to bring in reform by a simple affirmatory vote in each House of Parliament. It would be good to get the reform through: I’ve been working on it since 2001 and the (then) Government first agreed we had a case in 2004.
So at this stage I turn to theatre and all the plays I’ve seen during the year, which this year is nil, except for streamed repeats by the National Theatre of their wildy funny One Man, Two Guvnors, their excellent Antony and Cleopatra with Sophie Okonedo and Ralph Fiennes, their joyful community enterprise version of Pericles from last year, and of one play I did not see live: Les Blancs, a powerful portrayal of an African country at the start of an anti-colonial uprising, focussed on a missionary hospital of the same dubious character as Albert Schweitzer’s. It was written by a young Chicago woman who died in her 30s before it was performed, Lorraine Hansberry, and shows powerfully the torn loyalties of family and country, the shallow sympathies of the white observer journalist and the aggressive defensiveness of the settler military commander.
And that finally brings me to books – of which I’ve been reading more than in most years. In fact, having filled my shelves to overflowing, I had a new bookshelf made to go under the windows in my bedroom and added shelves in an alcove there up from the picture rail to the ceiling. This added about 20 feet to my previous 220 feet but the additions are already outgrown!
What, then, should I select from this year’s reading? This time last year I was nearing the end of The Five Giants – A Biography of the Welfare State by Nicholas Timmins – a hugely praised comprehensive and balanced history of the welfare state from Beveridge to 2017 – it runs to over 700 immensely well researched pages with another 100 of notes, bibliography and index. It reviews education, health, housing and social security for each government in turn with attention to the contribution of ministers and officials, and assessments of policy – intentions, strengths and weaknesses and results – often with inside information – showing that policy was often more consistent than expected from administration to administration, but with occasional radical changes of direction (as with Michael Gove and education in 2010).
Then there were two excellent books with an Indian theme – The Anarchy by William Dalrymple about (as his subtitle puts it) the relentless rise of the East India Company. He is a masterly historian and by using the Indian as well as British archives tells from all sides the story of how the East India Company, run from a small office in the City of London, became in the course of the second half of the eighteenth century the master – militarily and commercially – of almost the whole of India by using the Mughal emperors as its puppets and playing off the Afghans against the Marathas, Mysore against Hyderabad. The company’s exploitation of Bengal and later its extended domains was ruthless, shipping all the proceeds of taxes not needed to maintain its own local interests back to England – Clive was only one of many to make a ruthless fortune this way – and it was ironic that it was Warren Hastings, one of the few who paid attention to good administration and appreciated the local cultures, who was impeached: rightly acquitted after a trial lasting seven years (it was opened by Burke and Sheridan, each with a four-day speech!) he was a broken man. But the brutality was not confined to the Company: each of the Indian groups fought mercilessly against the others, betraying alliances and massacring captives by the thousand. It was not an attractive age to live in.
The other book with an Indian theme was The Patient Assassin by Anita Anand. Starting with the story of the unprovoked Amritsar massacre, preceded by the grossly oppressive policies of the imperial authorities and followed by their insanely bloody revenge, the book describes the extraordinary life of Udham Singh, an orphan with no prospects who may or may not have witnessed the massacre but who vowed revenge on those responsible. The military commander who ordered the massacre escaped him by dying young but 20 years later Udham Singh eventually assassinated the former lieutenant governor of Punjab, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, at a meeting at the Caxton Hall. After a perfunctory trial he was hanged in Pentonville – but in 1974 was exhumed and given a splendid funeral in India where statues now honour him. In his waiting period, he managed to travel widely, probably financed by the anti-imperial Ghadar movement but also perhaps by the Russians. He spent years in the USA, constantly moving on after appearing to settle into good employment, abandoning partners and children, and amazingly, despite a few years in prison when caught in India with guns and subversive leaflets, managing to escape full scrutiny by the security services until he had achieved his ambition – when those services very efficiently covered up their failures. A gripping book about an exceptional man, excellently researched although much remains obscure, not least because the official files are still sealed.
I moved on to The Club by Leo Damrosch. In 1763 Joshua Reynolds proposed to Samuel Johnson that they meet every Friday with some friends at the Turk’s Head near Fleet Street. Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith were among those who were members of ‘the Club’ from the start; it took ten years before James Boswell, forever fawning on Johnson, was admitted along with David Garrick; later came Edward Gibbon, Charles James Fox, Adam Smith, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and many others. Boswell was an inveterate womaniser, a defender of slavery, self-important and no match for the ready wit of the conversation that was the purpose of the Club. Burke by contrast opposed slavery and the exploitation of India (see above!), and Johnson himself had the same views – and kept a freed slave as a servant. He was a depressive; his marriage to Tetty when he was 26 and she 46 was not a success, however much he mourned her, and this and his emotional dependence on Hester Thrale, who with her brewer husband Henry provided him with a second home at their house in Streatham suggest that he was seeking a mother figure. Johnson appears to have harboured religious doubts that resulted in emphatic assertion of orthodox belief. He deplored Gibbon’s obvious scepticism: ‘He should have warned us of our danger before we entered his garden of flowery eloquence’, viz, Decline and Fall. The book recreates a whole segment of society in its historic context.
More history – earlier and far less attractive – in The Burning Time – The Story of the Smithfield Martyrs in which Virginia Rounding traces the history of the burning of religious ‘heretics’ at Smithfield through the reigns of Henry VIII and Mary (Edward VI saw only two burnings, both of Anabaptists, with whom noone, it seems, had any sympathy). As the pendulum swung, the victims were early Protestants (whose reforming zeal far outstripped Henry’s limited wishes), Catholics unwilling to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy, and then again Protestants resisting Mary’s return to Rome. All found themselves interrogated by panels of (often the same very flexible) bishops and lay officials (including the deplorable Richard Rich, expertly surviving every change of regime), imprisoned in the cellars or coalholes of bishops’ palaces, threatened with and sometimes tortured on the rack, and finally burned at the stake, alone or in groups of up to six or seven, outside St Bartholomew’s church and hospital in Smithfield. Rounding quotes at length from the verbal duelling of the interrogations as recorded most often by the victims themselves who were frequently highly educated and well able to set doctrine against doctrine and to rebuke their interrogators (such as Bishop Bonner) for their inconstancy in having themselves once held the opinions now being condemned. Others could only reiterate what they had learnt from preachers but all held adamantly to their convictions even in the face of torture and fire and despite all inducements to relent – or if they did give way, immediately withdrew their confessions, unable to live with the betrayal of their faith. In her final chapter Rounding draws a comparison with today’s jihadists who show equal determination and constancy and makes the point that the martyrs were seen as a danger to the state in much the same way, albeit they threatened no violence. She also brings out how obscure and meaningless the issues of Tudor times now seem, quoting various of the Church of England’s 39 Articles, but, herself as a devout Anglo-Catholic worshipper at St Bartholomew’s, shows insightful sympathy for the martyrs’ stubborn faith.
To complete the historical theme, I have just read Michael Taylor’s The Interest which tells the neglected story of the battle to abolish slavery twenty years after the celebrated abolition of the slave trade in 1807. The West Indian slaveholders’ interest was almost synonymous with the British establishment and took in many people one would never have suspected: the young Gladstone was emphatic on how appalling would be the consequences of emancipation, as was Robert Peel; William Cobbett of Rural Rides uttered dire racist tropes, as did even the campaigner for suffrage reform and other radical causes Richard Carlile. John Henry (Cardinal, now Saint) Newman persistently preached through the 1830s against emancipation. Many reform-minded people saw as a far higher priority alleviation of the suffering of the unemployed here. The emancipation campaign did not start until 1823, when some veterans of the previous campaign, including Thomas Clarkson, Zachary Macaulay (father of the historian) and William Wilberforce, founded the Anti-Slavery Society. With meetings all round the country they made some initial impact but little practical progress until the collapse of Lord Liverpool’s government, the Great Reform Act of 1832 and a new Parliament. Meantime there were slave revolts – in 1823 in Demerara (part of British Guiana) and in Jamaica at the end of 1831 – which were brutally put down. From 1832 the Colonial Church Union in Jamaica terrorised, beat up, jailed and expelled Methodist preachers whom they suspected (with little grounds) of supporting insurrection. Even with a reformed Parliament the battle was not over, with increasing emphasis on the difficulties of transition if the slaves were freed. The result was a botched reform: huge compensation for the slaveholders (who were found throughout British society) and a requirement that the former slaves work as bound apprentices for their former masters for what turned out to be four years but was followed by often violent colonial repression for the next century.
And now for something completely different! Signalling from Mars is a collection of the letters of Arthur Ransome, with insights into his seriousness as a political commentator and reporter in Russia during WW1, his determination to leave journalism to devote himself to writing, his devotion to fishing and sailing, his hatred for his first wife, love of his second and sad growing alienation from his daughter, and in the second half shows how much work went into the Swallows and Amazons books. As I have always loved these books (and have a collection of first editions) I found this a rewarding read!
More letters: A Durable Fire collects the letters of Duff & Diana Cooper from 1913-1950. Diana was daughter of the eighth Duke of Rutland and Duff Cooper a middle class (but well connected) Foreign Office clerk. They began corresponding in 1913 but as the first world war progressed with him in the front line they fell deeply in love. The letters are passionate and beautifully written, mixing obscure literary references and society gossip. Her parents were eventually persuaded to allow the match but after they married Diana became an actress and for most of the 1920s was in America playing the lead in a very strange-sounding sensational play with a religious theme, The Miracle, (she had to play a statue for the first 45 minutes before coming to life!) while Duff continued his FO career and later went into Parliament. They wrote to each other daily while apart, and in the later years there was less poetry and more society gossip from country houses and Riviera resorts – the letters are immersed in a world of aristocratic indulgence, triviality and affairs – Diana is the object, wherever she goes, of devotion by a succession of (platonic) ‘lovers’ (referred to solely as such!) but it was Duff (though it does not appear in the letters) who was serially unfaithful, but patently with no effect on their devotion to each other. Duff died young in 1954; Diana not until 1986.
Andrew Adonis wrote Ernest Bevin – Labour’s Churchill, a short biography drawing mainly on secondary sources but conveying a vivid impression of the far-sighted, pragmatic but principled man who created the T&GWU, protected Attlee from plots against him (when someone remarked that Herbert Morrison was his own worst enemy, Bevin replied ‘Not while I’m alive he isn’t!’), won the admiration of Churchill as minister of labour during the war, and as Foreign Secretary in the post-war Labour government saw before almost everyone the danger of Stalin and managed to outwit him and set in train the recovery of the countries of western Europe as liberal democracies – all this from the most unpromising start as an orphan at the age of 8 in an impoverished village on Exmoor, Winsford (where Boris Johnson also was later born in rather different circumstances). A remarkable man who died too soon, working despite grave disability and illness right to the end.
Diana’s brother John, later the ninth duke, is the subject of The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey who got access to the Manners family archives at Belvoir Castle to write a book about the estate workers who went to war in 1914 – the eighth duke was active in encouraging them to volunteer – but found that the meticulously kept records had a months-long gap in 1915 – no letters, no diary entries, nothing – and then found two similar earlier gaps. John, she discovered, had spent his last years right up to his very death sorting and indexing all the family records and destroying everything from these three periods which revealed episodes of which he apparently felt ashamed. This book is about Bailey’s detective work to uncover the strange truths behind these gaps.
I caught up belatedly with Claire Tomalin’s life of Charles Dickens which brings him to vivid life – a man of enormous variety, far from wholly admirable, not only in deserting his wife (at least he provided her with a house and income) but in his treatment of most of his ten children (one girl died in infancy), especially his seven boys – his first son Charles was cosseted despite his failings but the others, all bar the unexpected success Henry, who became a lawyer, were packed off to boarding school, sent to the colonies and even cut off and left in penury. This contrasted starkly with his support for friends and, when they died, their dependants, his campaigning (in youth) for social reform and his creation (with money from Angela Burdett Coutts) of a home for carefully selected women of the streets who were then successfully resettled in Australia. He was a man of strong and lasting friendships, an entertainer, whether as a magician at home or an actor/director in amateur dramatics or late in life as a reader of his own works, putting such energy into this that he would come off stage in a state of literal collapse after once more giving the Death of Nancy. He was received by royalty, knew Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, and most of the key literary figures of his day, and travelled widely in Europe and the USA. He worked assiduously at his novels and editing his magazines (Household Words and then All the Year Round), packing more activity into a week than seems possible. He kept secret his childhood in poverty, baled out time and again his improvident father who finally made good as a manager at Household Words, and kept utterly secret his relationship with the much younger Nelly Ternan, ultimately his mistress. He died young, at 58, having almost driven himself by hard work to the grave.
Having mentioned Trollope, I interpolate that I read a few more of his novels: The Fixed Period (an unsuccessful oddity about an attempt to institutionalise age-based euthanasia), Dr Wortle’s School (outrage when a virtuous man and wife are found not to be married legally since her brutish first husband turns out not after all to be dead), Rachel Ray (originally written for an evangelical magazine but dropped when they discovered its less than flattering portraits of an evangelical minister and two of his acolytes – one described as ‘elated with a dismal joy’ at the follies of the world), Orley Farm (about the dire consequences of a dispossessed wife’s understandable act of folly, forging a codicil to her husband’s will) and The Way We Live Now (notable for the two most sympathetic characters being regarded as despicable outcasts – Mrs Hurtle for being American and supposedly divorced, pursuing her own affections, Mr Brehgert for being a Jew, his honesty and generosity going quite unrecognised). The only other novels I read were Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, the second in the Book of Dust trilogy, and a rather unsatisfactory Robert Harris, V2.
Of humanist interest were a good legal book, Freedom from Religion and Human Rights Law focussing on the way freedom of religion too often limits the freedom of the non-religious, three books tenuously related to the history of Humanists UK: The Life-Story of a Humanist by F J Gould (1923) who progressed from a choir scholarship at St George’s Chapel, Windsor and a career as a devout Christian teacher to deism, positivism and humanism and was in at the start of the Union of Ethical Societies in 1896; Living as a Humanist (essays from 1950 by four of the pioneers of humanism as such, including Harold Blackham); Abortion Law Reformed (1971) by Madeleine Simms and Keith Hindell, about the campaign leading up to the 1967 Act in which I played a marginal part with Humanist Lobby which I ran; and finally the superb new Little Book of Humanism by Andrew Copson and Alice Roberts: a mixture of simple reflections, apt quotations and well chosen illustrations which got into the Sunday Times best-seller lists: a good stocking-filler! Alice Roberts also wrote Tamed – Ten Species that Changed Our World about the way humans interacted with four animal species (dogs, cattle, chickens and horses) and five plants (wheat, maize, potatoes and apples), mutually influencing their behaviour and evolution – the science is quite complex and the geography is worldwide but the pictures she paints are of absorbing interest. Again a demanding read was Kenan Malik’s Man, Beast and Zombie. Subtitled ‘What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us about Human Nature’, this is a historical review of philosophical and psychological theories of human nature, taking in body and mind dualism, phrenology, consciousness, determinism, the misapplication of evolution theory in many areas including scientific racism, the theory of memes and very much else besides. He argues in conclusion for a humanism that is inspired and sustained, not undermined, by science, and which in turn provides science with a moral direction. Humans, he says, are subject to nature’s laws but cannot be understood purely in natural terms: human qualities cannot be reduced to natural ones.
I end with four books of warning about the state of politics today. Democracy for Sale – Dark Money and Dirty Politics by Peter Geoghegan from openDemocracy – a highly readable and thoroughly well researched study of the dangers to democracy from the power of dark, untraceable money – dangers that turned out to be much greater than he had expected. He starts with the story of how the DUP did not spend a penny on advertising during the Brexit campaign until two weeks before the vote, when it spent over £250,000 (equivalent to half its annual income). Not only that, but almost nothing was spent in Northern Ireland: the DUP had been handed the money by the ‘Constitutional Research Council’, run by an obscure Glasgow businessman and failed politician. But the CRC is an unincorporated association, free from the rules that govern most organisations and not obliged to publish its accounts: noone knows where its money comes from. The DUP was being used by unidentifiable agents as a channel to get round the limits on spending under our outdated and pathetic election law. But that is just one example of dark money influencing opinion – far easier when people live in digital echo chambers crowded with anonymous bots and when trust in experts is decried (by such as Michael Gove). Many of the most influential think tanks reveal next to nothing about their funders: examples include the Adam Smith Institute, Policy Exchange, Civitas, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs. The signs are that they rake in money not just from UK industry and Russian oligarchs but especially from billionaires in the USA, delighted to find that in the UK it costs a tiny fraction of what they spend at home to rule politics.
Joshua Rosenberg’s Enemies of the People? is a calm rebuttal of the hysterical nonsense in parts of the press about judges overruling Parliament in the two Miller cases when they were in fact protecting the rights of Parliament against an over-reaching and overweening Executive. Ministers continue to lambast judges and lawyers and the Government has now set up an enquiry plainly aimed at curbing the use of judicial review (even the consultation questions are patently biased). Rozenberg takes apart the critics’ arguments very effectively, not endorsing every decision the judges have made (any human institution can err) but the Supreme Court gets it right almost all the time. More importantly, their decisions and arguments are based on legal principles and politics never intrude.
Shadow State – Murder, Mayhem and Russia’s Remaking of the West by Luke Harding shows how the Russians have infiltrated western – especially American – politics and seem to have effective control of Donald Trump, a real-life Manchurian candidate. There is no absolute proof but the circumstantial evidence is legion. Reliable people in the US intelligence services have been horrified by (for example) his acceptance at Helsinki of Putin’s word that Russia did not interfere in his 2016 election and his informing Russian visitors of highly sensitive third-party intelligence not meant to be shared. His business and sexual interests have plainly dictated his policies – most obviously in the invented story of Ukrainian help for Joe Biden which, as Harding shows, grew from small beginnings into an elaborate but still incoherent set of lies and forced the sacking of the US ambassador to Ukraine. Harding has assembled a damning case, albeit the cast list is huge and somewhat confusing – a list of dramatis personae and a time chart would have been useful.
Finally, in Fake Law – The Truth about Justice in an Age of Lies the Secret Barrister patiently exposes the unprincipled misrepresentation of the law by politicians and the press, quoting prolifically from press reports about (for example) the law about responding to burglars in your home or court rulings on withdrawal of life-support from sad children like Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans to show how distorted they were by political and pro-life interests respectively. Other topics include wildly exaggerated accounts of compensation awards for personal injury (ask yourself, he/she suggests, if you would rather have the money and crippling injuries or no money and your health), persistent misrepresentation of ‘not guilty’ verdicts as proof of innocence (and therefore of wicked attempts to frame the accused, typically men accused of rape) rather than the result of a case not being strong enough on the day (maybe years after the event owing to the underfunding of our system of justice) to convince a jury beyond reasonable doubt; and similarly the equation of ‘accused’ with ‘guilty’ when the cost of ‘giving’ legal aid to ‘criminals’ is deplored. The book is illustrated with profuse quotations from the press and politicians deliberately whipping up anger about the cost of legal aid and the devastating effects of its being slashed (Failing Grayling of course), robbing most people of any chance of suing for damages in even the most obvious cases and cramming the criminal courts with people defending themselves at far greater cost in the end to the public purse than if they had been legally advised or represented.
Enough – and apologies for the print quality: I have a new printer on order but delivery is constantly postponed!

2019 —————- 2021