Carnage

Donald Trump - American Carnage - first inaugural address

Abandon all hope?

Rudyard Kipling once wrote:

“If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken
And stoop and build ’em up with worn out tools…”

Well, I can’t quite say that I have given my life to the causes for which this blog stands – particularly as I only started blogging after the 2010 general election, and my views on some issues have matured and evolved over that time – but I have been doing this for over five years now, sometimes publishing multiple times a day, and I think that I hold my own when it comes to putting my time, money and effort into being an engaged citizen.

And so I think I certainly know what Kipling was driving at when he alluded to the disappointment of seeing a long-cherished and hard-sought goal turn to dust in one’s hand the moment it is finally reached. That feeling pervades politics right now, at least for pro-Brexit, pro-nation state conservatarians such as myself.

2016-2017 has been a period of one step forward, two steps back in many regards. The British people voted for Brexit and freedom from that decaying, antidemocratic political conglomerate known as the European Union, but they did so on the back of a tawdry and deceitful campaign led by proud ignoramuses who wore their lack of a Brexit plan as a badge of honour – and now the hubris of the Westminster Brexit aristocracy threatens to ruin the entire endeavour.

Meanwhile, the Coke Zero Conservative Party managed by a whisper to keep Jeremy Corbyn’s marauding socialists out of office, but only at the expense of turning themselves into a limp, centre-left version of the Labour Party themselves. And now conservatives face the dual indignities of being accused of being heartless haters of the poor and persecutors of the weak despite having ceded most of the intellectual arguments to the Left, and being completely unable to move the needle of British politics in a remotely satisfactorily right-wing direction.

If I’m going to be accused of callously taking a jackhammer to the welfare state I at least want to see a little bit of rubble as my reward. But there is no rubble, only the stench of craven capitulation to the leftist forces of perpetual dependency.

And things are little better across the Atlantic. Whatever pleasure one may have otherwise taken from the humbling of Hillary Clinton in her second presidential campaign – and there were many reasons to want to see a borderline corrupt establishment candidate in hoc to global elites punished at the ballot box – any such joy quickly turned to ashes when faced with the alternative of President Donald J. Trump, who vastly matches and exceeds Clinton’s flaws in every conceivable way.

The real tragedy of the Trump presidency – at least in my view, as I previously discussed on this blog – is that even those few policies and initiatives of the Trump administration which are positive and laudable are actively being rendered toxic and untenable by their association with a man so patently unfit to serve in the highest civilian office.

As with Brexit and the limping British conservative government, I fear that the Trump presidency will shift the Overton window of American politics further and further to the Left the longer it persists – either because Trump himself embraces many protectionist and left-wing ideas, because the Republican Party’s brand is being tarnished through their utter inability to transition from a party of strident protest to a party of responsible government, or because the American Left has been driven to such blind, seething fury at Trump’s personal flaws that any daft socialist or redistributive policy starts to seem appealing to people simply because it is a rebuke to the president.

Almost across the board, applying the normal metrics, this should be a time for celebration. But instead, each victory appears increasingly Pyrrhic. To defend Brexit now is to open oneself to ceaseless mockery and hatred by a cast of bien-pensant know-nothings who think that taking their opinions from the Guardian website makes them high-information voters when in fact they are some of the very, very lowest in the land.

And now even those of us who had nothing to do with the major Brexit campaigns – the increasingly ridiculous Leave.EU or the establishment Vote Leave – are accused of unleashing a tide of hatred and xenophobia, and of “dividing the country”. Of course, our accusers didn’t mind when the country was equally divided prior to the referendum, because the people who disagreed with them were not given a proper voice in power. Only when the machinery of state finally swung into action on behalf of the majority did these pant-wetting histrionics about “divisiveness” begin.

And that is to say nothing of the fact that our political class are mismanaging Brexit to such a jaw-droppingly colossal extent that many Remainers are effectively being proved correct, a fact which they do not hesitate to crow about on television, in the newspapers and in social media. Of course, this is why Brexit needed to happen in the first place – our ability to self-govern has atrophied over decades of relentless integration with a remote and unaccountable supranational government in Brussels.

Bringing power back closer to the people and undoing 40 years of political integration was always going to be an Hurculean, traumatic process (not a singular event), but even if the most dire Brexit predictions come true it is surely better to go through the painful correction rather than simply throw our hands up in the air, admit that we are not able to govern ourselves adequately as a people, and submit permanently to remote technocracy.

But it is increasingly clear that the promise of Brexit will not be realised, at least not by the current crop of politicians, or realistically within at least a couple of decades. Brexit was always going to be a process, not an event. And Brexit itself was never the thing that would deliver the beneficial payload in terms of bringing power and accountability closer to the British people. Brexit merely makes these things remotely possible, by extricating us from treaties and frameworks which give us no opt-out or right of reservation if a particular policy, regulation or initiative is against our national interest.

But our political class are so superficial and intellectually uncurious, and the quality of our political discourse so weak, that this richer conversation has played out only on the independent blogosphere, while prestige news outlets, journalists and politicians present Brexit as a zero-sum game in which – depending on their perspective – either buccaneering Britain defeats the evil continentals, or the Virtuous Europeans give us the “punishment beating” we were so richly warned about during the referendum.

Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Effectively overruling the establishment’s carefully laid out plan for our lives was always going to generate a huge backlash, from powerful and well-connected people with the ability to make traditional grassroots anti-establishment backlashes look like a cake sale at the Women’s Institute. Perhaps we forgot this fact because we Brexiteers and defenders of nation state democracy were so used to being part of a backlash ourselves – the backlash against the establishment – that we didn’t give enough credence to the fact that globalists, disinterested “citizens of the world” and other assorted types are equally as invested in their worldview as we are in ours, and in a far stronger position to defend it from attack.

And now that they have experienced repudiation at the ballot box, the establishment’s ability to turn howls of outrage into a full-on filibuster of democratically-made decisions is stronger than many of us planned for. We have Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and the like jabbering away like idiots, totally unmoored from reality, tarnishing the dream of Brexit with every garbled statement. Meanwhile, they – the pro-EU establishment – still control the bulk of the machinery of state, dominate Parliament, the worlds of art, science and commerce. And they would rather see Britain fail so that they can scream an hysterical “I told you so!” at the 52% than muck in and help to amplify the voices of sane Brexiteers (they happy few) who understand what they are talking about.

Neither is the concept of the nation state faring much better in America, where Donald Trump’s presidency has caused American leftists to increasingly embrace a position in which no illegal immigrant should face deportation, or even the slightest hindrance as they attempt to subvert the law and settle in the United States without permission. Never mind that a nation which cannot control its own borders can hardly still count itself a nation – to even question the idea of mass amnesty, sanctuary cities and a fully open door is to be racist towards “undocumented” people, for whom our hearts should brim over with sympathy, while hardening against America’s native-born huddled masses.

But to support the nation state, or its greatest expression through Western Civilization, is becoming increasingly gauche and passe for many in the political elite. Donald Trump recently visited Warsaw and made what was actually a rather decent speech (obviously not of his own creation) about defending Western values from military, terrorism and cultural threats. But of course Donald Trump was the worst possible person to make such a speech, and so now even more hearts will be turned against the idea of taking pride in liberal Western values. The president of the United States actively sets back the causes which he (or the people in his administration who pull the strings) seek to promote, purely by virtue of his ignorance and inestimably deficient personality.

One Australian news anchor put it rather well, remarking that “there’s a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Trump with the thoughts of the man himself”. A dangerous tendency indeed. Even when Trump says something broadly positive – such as about supporting the nation state and defending Western values – one cannot rejoice, first because the man who delivers the words renders them toxic and consequently less likely to happen, but also because there will likely be no attempted follow-through anyway. These are just words put into his mouth by a speechwriter or an administration ideologue like Steve Bannon.

The Trump-Bannon or Trump-Miller partnerships are not remotely like that between John F. Kennedy and his brilliant speechwriter Ted Sorensen, where the wise counsellor Sorensen merely refined JFK’s own fairly sophisticated thoughts and words. No, the incumbent of the Oval Office is a shallow, egotistical and unlettered man who just wants to be seen to be winning, and who can be manipulated into doing pretty much anything so long as it makes for a good TV visual.

That’s why one can’t even rejoice when Trump says something vaguely encouraging in a speech – because at the best of times, Trump is effectively little more than a sock puppet for the cleverer, more manipulative people jostling for influence within his administration.

The future of conservatism also presently hangs in the balance, on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, the Republican Party – having sold their soul to Donald Trump – seems determined to prove that they cannot be trusted as a responsible party of government. If you want angry tri-cornered hatted protests about freedom and liberty, the GOP is probably still just about the party for you. But if you expect mature governance and the diligent application of conservative policies in government then look elsewhere.

Eight years of whining about the evils of ObamaCare and the Republicans have no realistic plan for repeal. All of their proposals get dreadful scores from the Congressional Budget Office because they are forecasted to simultaneously throw people back onto the uninsured scrapheap while simultaneously costing more money. “Repeal and replace” is rapidly becoming the Republican Party’s version of Vote Leave’s “£350 million for the NHS” pledge. And if the GOP cannot deliver some kind of conservative reform that meaningfully benefits people’s lives by the time of the 2018 midterms, they will be punished far worse than Theresa May’s limp Tories.

Speaking of which, British conservatism is in complete and utter crisis. As I have extensively written on this blog over several years now, failing to robustly defend small-government conservative values comes with a price attached. And now we know what that price is – Jeremy Corbyn on the verge of entering 10 Downing Street as prime minister, all because Theresa May’s cowardly and incompetent election campaign failed to make a bold and compelling case for conservative solutions.

But truthfully this is not all Theresa May’s fault. The rot goes deep, even back beyond the Cameron and Osborne years. If you do not defend conservative principles as an inherently good thing rather than a necessary virtue, eventually you will lose. And for years now the British public has been fed a poisonous diet of the idea that the only “good” conservatism is that sop to the Left known as “compassionate conservatism”, while any attempt to preach the virtues of self-reliance, individualism and civil society over the state is seen as somehow evil.

Then look at the remorseless advances made by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, who have broken free from the university campus and started to inflict their dogmatic regressive illiberalism across whole swathes of society. At one point I attempted to document daily occurrences of overreach and infringement on civil liberties by the social justice brigade – my “Tales from the Safe Space” series – but by about the sixtieth entry it started getting a little bit repetitive basically issuing the same dire warning week after week.

If the warning was heard, it certainly has not been heeded. Political leaders, corporations, media outlets, journalists, commentators and virtue-signalling private citizens have all been falling over themselves to jump on the social justice bandwagon.

Even once-venerable institutions like America’s Southern Poverty Law Centre would rather spend their time hounding brave reformist Muslims and ex-Muslims who speak out against extremism, accusing people like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali of being Islamophobic extremists themselves, than stick to their core mission of shining a spotlight on genuine racism and discrimination, particularly in the Islamic world. The ACLU has additionally given itself over completely to punishing anybody who doesn’t buy into radical new gender theory, while the UK’s Liberty organisation has long favoured leftist agitation over the single-minded defence of true civil liberties.

In short, there is little to celebrate and even less to give cause for hope. Having snatched power, those few forces which could have potentially been an agent for change have instead been stymied by their own incompetence, while the forces of the globalist Left fortify themselves in temporary opposition.

I wish it were otherwise, but at present I do not see how. Compare these two extracts from the Obama second inaugural speech in 2013 and Trump’s first (and hopefully last) inaugural in 2017. First the Obama:

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. A decade of war is now ending. (Applause.) An economic recovery has begun. (Applause.) America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it — so long as we seize it together. (Applause.)

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. (Applause.) We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own. (Applause.)

We understand that outworn programs are inadequate to the needs of our time. So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures: a nation that rewards the effort and determination of every single American. That is what this moment requires. That is what will give real meaning to our creed.

And then the Trump:

The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

Everyone is listening to you now.

You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.

Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.

These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.

But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

The two speeches are truly not that different, in basic message if not in style. Or at least, the difference lies in what is not said rather than in what is said.

Both make the same essential (and valid) point – that there is an “American Carnage” or Western Carnage in progress. But while former President Obama did little to arrest this trend and is now happy to go off yachting with Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen in his retirement, current President Trump would rather rage against his critics at 5AM on Twitter than do anything about it.

And waiting eagerly in the wings, like hungry jackals, are the same cast of incompetent, self-serving clowns who gave us Donald Trump and Theresa May in the first place.

For conservatives and supporters of the nation state as the greatest bulwark against threats to our liberty, optimism is vanishingly hard to find in politics right now. And there it is.

 

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging, due to health issues. Hopefully normal service will commence soon.

 

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Embracing ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ Will Not Make The Rootless Tories More Popular

The Good Right - compassionate conservatism

Compassionate conservatism barely won David Cameron a majority government in 2015, even against the hapless Ed Miliband. Rebooting the flawed concept, especially against Jeremy Corbyn’s turbo-charged ultra-compassionate socialism, means fighting the Left on their own terms and is doomed to failure

Despite its complete and utter failure to deliver a solid electoral victory for the conservatives, or to meaningfully detoxify the Conservative Party’s “nasty party” image, the woolly, nebulous and thoroughly unhelpful concept of “compassionate conservatism” refuses to die.

Following Theresa May’s abject failure in the 2017 general election – losing the Conservative Party their majority by failing to counter the appeal of a marauding socialist who actually has principles, stands for them unapologetically and convinces more and more people of their value – all manner of ideologically limp Wet Tories are now coming out of the woodwork to proclaim that the only way for conservatism to survive is to meet Jeremy Corbyn half way.

These appeasers of the Left (I won’t call them pragmatists because that kinder term suggests a kind of nobility and wisdom for which there is very little evidence) seem to sincerely believe that staying in power means accepting vast swathes of the Left’s argument about the welfare state, wealth redistribution and fiscal restraint. They would have the rest of us believe that conservatives face inevitable defeat unless the Tories compete with Labour to be the loudest cheerleaders of the bloated public sector.

Charlie Elphicke, Tory MP for Dover, is only the latest to advance this defeatist theory, writing in Conservative Home:

Step one to victory is to conquer the idea that the Conservatives are on the side of the rich. Every Conservative I know is in politics because we care about the vulnerable and the least well off. At the election, we failed to explain to people how our values offer the best for people and their families.

Conservatism is at its best when we communicate a vision of Britain as a land of opportunity, aspiration and success. A place where anyone, whatever their background, can achieve and succeed. Where they can climb the ladder of life. A country where people can get jobs, a home to call their own and achieve their full potential. Where Government gives people a hand-up, not handouts – and hard work brings rewards.

Our caring conservative tradition is also central to all that we are. This is why we must showcase our values as the party of compassion. The conservatism that seeks to protect people from the worst excesses of the system.

Protecting people, and being the party of compassion, matters every bit as the land of opportunity. This means standing up against rogue landlords, overcharging utility companies, loan sharks, tax dodgers, and unscrupulous employers.

And yet rather than proposing that the Conservatives do what Margaret Thatcher did to the hard left in the 1980s – namely, steamrollering over their socialist squeals, failed dogmas and entrenched special interests to speak directly to the people and sell them an alternative vision of Britain’s future – Charlie Elphicke proposes instead that we prance around humming The Red Flag and hoping to convince enough wavering voters that we are little more than the Labour Party with a brain and a calculator.

Elphicke proposes capitulation to the false leftist narrative that it is in any way “compassionate” to redistribute wealth and income from those who earned it in order to better fund a welfare machine which encourages dependency and helplessness more than self-sufficiency. Elphicke – though he would never say so out loud – effectively accepts the idea that we should give a man a fish, and then another fish, and then another one until the barrel is empty, rather than teaching people to fish for themselves.

Elphicke continues:

I’ve spoken to colleagues from across the country who were asked by people on the doorstep what our manifesto offered for them. They struggled to find positive things to say.

Now I’ve heard people say we didn’t have a “retail offer.” But, you know, we’re not selling soap powder here. We are about caring for people and changing lives. We failed to explain how we would do that – and so people didn’t know.

It’s not difficult to think how we could have done so much more to support traditionally Conservative motorists, aspirant home owners, small business people, and the elderly. Or how we could have reached out to families and younger people with lifelong learning, greater help for carers, and more support to get on the housing ladder.

We should have showcased our record of action, too, because it is pretty incredible. We brought Britain back from the brink. We have delivered record employment, a strong economy, a powerful recovery from Labour’s crash, along with pumping vast amounts of cash into the NHS. Our failure to highlight our record cost us heavily.

Many of these observations are correct, but the conclusion which Elphicke draws from them are depressingly wide of the mark.

Yes, the Tories did an abysmal job of standing up for their record. At a time when the Labour Party manifesto offered an series of calculated bribes catering even to firmly middle class voters, the Tories went to battle with their mindless slogan of “strong and stable”, and a deafening silence when it came to defending their limited efforts at fiscal restraint since 2010.

But Charlie Elphicke’s vision of “caring conservatism” is not the solution. Rather than standing up to the politics of Me Me Me or turning away from the notion of bribing voters with cynical manifesto pledges, Elphicke merely proposes that the Tories start using the same playbook. Even the term “caring conservatism” should raise the hackles of any self-respecting conservative, suggesting as it does the idea of government as an omnipresent, watchful auxiliary parent, charged with wiping our noses and keeping us safe at the expense of our freedom and individuality.

Worse still, to even talk of “compassionate” or “caring” conservatism is to concede that ordinary, vanilla conservatism is somehow cruel or lacking in compassion. It suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with our worldview and our politics, and that only by being born again and accepting the “compassionate” modifier do we become semi-respectable people with whom it is just about acceptable to associate in public.

This is incredibly counterproductive. Economically speaking, conservatism at its best means government getting out of the way so that people can succeed according to their merits, and providing a limited but dependable safety net for those in real need by not lavishing unnecessary benefits on over half of the population who are arbitrarily declared “vulnerable” and in dubious need of government assistance. The point that conservatives should be screaming from the rafters is that real conservatism would do more for the truly needy, by rolling back a benefits culture which sees as much as 50% of taxpayers becoming net dependants on the state and compensating for that rollback by lowering general taxation and restructuring the welfare state so as to provide something more than grim subsistence for those who need to use it.

You don’t see Labour MPs or activists describing themselves as “sane Labour” or “grown-up Labour”, effectively conceding that the more statist, big-government policies of their party base are somehow insane or childish (even though they are). They own their left-wingery and proclaim it proudly, not apologetically. Centrist Tories or “compassionate conservatives”, meanwhile, come across as ashamed of their own party and apologetic for their own beliefs, and seem determined to tack as closely to Corbyn’s party as possible before the cognitive dissonance becomes too unbearable.

This is a contest that conservatives can never win. In the race to be more paternalistic, more restrictive of behaviour and more redistributive of wealth, the Tories will lose to Labour every day of the week. And with Jeremy Corbyn in charge of the Labour Party it won’t even be close.

Look, I get the superficial appeal of Charlie Elphicke’s proposal. It offers a quick and easy route to staying in power, where rather than having to do the hard work of challenging voter assumptions and telling the electorate difficult but authentic truths, instead we can just act a bit more like the Labour Party and stay in government forever. But it won’t work.

If the 2017 general election taught us anything, it is that an entire generation of young voters have grown up experiencing all of the wealth, liberty and opportunity which Thatcherism helped secure for them before they were even born, but that these same people have been taught to despise the very things – capitalism, free markets, a less activist state – which made our material wealth possible in the first place.

Corbyn’s cohort of young admirers literally share memes on social media using smartphones and personal computers which were only put in reach of ordinary people thanks to the free market they are busy disparaging, and they do so without a shred of irony because throughout their young lives, nobody has dared to forcefully defend Margaret Thatcher’s legacy or to suggest that real “compassion” means more than blindly firehosing taxpayer money at every social problem and expecting positive results.

An entire generation has grown up (and older voters gone over two decades) without really hearing a stirring argument in favour of smaller-government, pro-market policies from any senior politician. Even most Conservative MPs have preferred to talk about mitigating the “damage” done by the market, or as Elphicke puts it, “protect[ing] people from the worst excesses of the system” rather than explaining how “the system” is a good thing, not to mention a hell of a lot better than socialism.

Neither has there been an adequate effort on the part of Conservatives to rebut the Left’s cynical and dishonest attempt to portray every failure of regulation, every act of crony corporatism as a failure of capitalism itself. Here, Charlie Elphicke’s idea of a “rapid rebuttal” unit actually has real merit. Too often we cower and equivocate whenever the Left trot out their Capitalist Bogeyman of the Day – be it Philip Green or “the bankers” – rather than pushing back and explaining that criminal acts or regulatory failure does not discredit the economic system which has delivered more wealth and prosperity to more people than any other in human history.

But all of this needs to be done under the overall aegis of a vision of conservatism as a force which liberates people and sets them free rather than one which coddles them.

Sure, the Conservative Party might eke out another few general election victories (or at least 2017-style non-defeats) by playing up the “caring conservatism” angle and chasing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party ever further to the left. But any such battles won will come at the expense of losing the wider war. If the Conservative Party is to be nothing more than the Labour Party with a modicum more economic sense then really, what’s the point in even bothering? A succession of such Conservative prime ministers, having totally forsaken their own raison d’être, could be in office for years yet never really in power. Theresa May in perpetuity.

The Thatcherite revolution was made possible partly because years of stultifying, socialist post-war consensus led Britain to a crisis point, teetering on the brink of irreversible national decline. In 1979, the Conservative Party took advantage of that crisis to discredit the status quo and present their alternative offering as both beneficial, necessary and inevitable, shifting the Overton Window of British politics firmly to the right. And while there were negative side effects which should not be overlooked or minimised – particularly outside the southeast – the Thatcherite medicine worked.

We are at another such crisis point today, this time brought about through the confluence of Brexit, the unmitigated side-effects of globalisation, an economic recovery which has been intangible for too many people, an over-centralised Westminster government and a terminally unreformed public sector. Labour are already moving to take advantage of this crisis and shift the Overton Window back to the left. And they are succeeding – ideas which were fringe absurdities twenty years ago, like wage councils and the renationalisation of industry, are now stunningly back on the agenda, while the man who promotes them is a few false moves by Theresa May away from 10 Downing Street.

Conservatives cannot afford to squander this opportunity, to allow the current political crisis (or state of flux) to be used by Labour to drag Britain further to the left without even putting up a fight for the small-government, conservative values which once saved this country. And breathing life back into the corpse of compassionate conservatism will only aid the Left in their endeavour. It will be a huge signal to our ideological foes that we accept the premise of their argument (compassion = a bigger state and more redistribution) and only encourage them to expand their demands move further and further to the left themselves.

It is ludicrous that we even find ourselves in this position. Jeremy Corbyn was twenty points down in the opinion polls until Theresa May launched her disastrous and thoroughly un-conservative general election campaign, and now he is within striking distance of 10 Downing Street. Red Conservatism or Blue Labour, a la Nick Timothy and his disciples, doesn’t work. If people want swivel-eyed socialism they’ll pick the real deal over the off-brand equivalent, every single time.

Corbynites believe that conservatives are evil, heartless, amoral “Tory Scum”. We will not suddenly win their friendship, or their respect, by deferring to them on a few specific issues or taking the sharp edge off our message of economic freedom, individual liberty and a smaller, more efficient state. No appeasement is possible or desirable. The only thing to be done is to get out and win the argument in public, to have a million difficult conversations with people who are currently quite sympathetic to the Corbyn worldview because of our shameful failure to adequately preach our own values.

The alternative – if we insist on reanimating the corpse of compassionate conservatism – is to doom ourselves to more centrist malaise at best, and a truly frightening Jeremy Corbyn socialist government at worst.

 

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Are We Finally Witnessing The End Of Bland, Centrist Politics?

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Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit… People want meaning in their lives and a purpose in their politics that dry, centrist managerialism cannot hope to provide

This, by Ted Yarbrough, is very perceptive:

Man does not live by bread alone. Though a religious statement by Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew I think that statement has never been more true- especially seen in geopolitics.

We humans have never been materially wealthier.  Yes, some people still live in abject poverty and many people don’t like that others have more money than them, but by historical standards we should be thanking our lucky stars each day for our blessings. We live longer than ever before and can communicate with people throughout the world at an instant. Yet, as especially seen in politics, many people are angry. Populists are rising on both right and left. Those in positions of power ie “establishment” people in the media, government etc are extremely perplexed. How could, for example, the people not want to send that nasty man Trump a message with some bright young man who checks all the boxes like Jon Ossoff? [referring to the Democrats’ failed attempt to take Georgia’s sixth congressional district in the recent special election]

I think the people shocked by the return of ideology miss one big point about humans. We are not animals, we don’t just like to be fed and wag our tail. We believe in justice, we dream dreams, we are not content because, yes often we are spoiled, but we want to believe in something. We want to be something bigger than ourselves- it’s why humans suffer enormously to go to Mt. Everest and the south pole and the moon- we want to do things because they are great. It is why people are constantly searching for the meaning of life and worshipping God (or gods). We want to change the world because we recognize the imperfections in it. We will not be content.

In politics, that means people are growing sick of “centrists” ie technocrats who don’t inspire the people but expect to govern because they are supposedly the best qualified for the job. Centrists are shocked to see the rise of nationalists and free-marketers and socialists and Islamists, but really they shouldn’t be. Those ideologies offer people something to believe in, a better world to dream of and fight for, rather than a shallow world of pop music, materials possessions and politics made occasionally spicy with some virtue signalling identity politics thrown in. People now, like our ancestors of old, want to battle over ideas. To work towards finding truth.

This blog has been screaming for years now that centrist politics is leading us nowhere good, entrenching privileges for those set up to gain from the current system while doing nothing to help those – particularly those at the sharp end of globalisation – who do not benefit from the post-patriotic, post nation state world that the elites are building without meaningful democratic consent.

But even I did not predict the degree to which the establishment’s insistence on clinging on to their bland, centrist model of governance would lead to disruptions to the political order on the level of Donald Trump, Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party (and nearly the country).

Some of these disruptions are welcome – Brexit is a great achievement, even if many of the benefits end up being lost through abysmal execution by the political class, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Jeckyll and Hyde leadership of the Labour Party reminds us both how ideology can reinvigorate a political movement but also just how far the party has drifted from the interests of working people. And others of these disruptions – cough, Donald Trump – are unwelcome and have almost zero upside.

But more such populist disruptions are almost inevitable until the political class realises that people want more from their politics than a ruling class of bland, superficial technocrats who promise nothing more than the smooth administration of the status quo. Jeremy Corbyn, for all of his faults, at least promises a radical reordering of society – one made all the more appealing by the fact that the Conservatives long ago ceased to make a bold, unapologetic case for free markets, individual freedom and a less suffocating state.

Nearly two years ago, this blog asked where is the Conservative Party’s own Jeremy Corbyn? Where is the small-C conservative version of the politician who dares to proclaim an unrepentantly neo-Thatcherite worldview, instead of pretending (a la Cameron, Osborne, Hammond and May) that “austerity” and fiscal restraint are a sad necessity brought about by recession rather than an innately good thing in and of themselves?

Theresa May led the Conservative Party to near-defeat in the general election this month because she never even attempted to take on Jeremy Corbyn in the battle of ideologies. And while conservatives were never likely to walk away with the lion’s share of the youth vote, shamefully allowing Jeremy Corbyn to be the only one to present the emerging generation of new voters with anything like a positive inspirational message made damn certain that the majority of them voted Labour.

Yarbrough’s conclusion is stark:

With that being said, if the centrist parties do not start treating people as humans who dream dreams, and offer a compelling hope for people, the people of the world will continue to be more polarized and radicalized. And if there is no hope more and more false prophets will emerge to fill the vacuum.

One of my favourite television shows is the twelve-part HBO series “From The Earth To The Moon”, executive produced by Tom Hanks, recounting the complete history of NASA’s Apollo Program which culminated in six manned missions to the surface of the moon. I like it because it represents, to me, a time when humanity stood for more than “reducing inequality”, deifying public services and promising to make the trains run on time. A time when our desire for achievement, like our plans for human spaceflight, aspired to something more than low-earth orbit.

The theme music at the start of each episode begins with JFK’s speech at Rice University in which Kennedy says “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

Of course the 1960s and 70s were tumultuous decades with many of their own very real challenges – the very real threat posed by Soviet Communism, for one, and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. But how much worse would this era have been if there were no unifying objectives around which people could come together?

In our increasingly secular age, religion is no longer a unifying force within nations. Art stepped up briefly as a replacement, but our art and culture has become increasingly debased too. And so people, being spiritual beings, increasingly vest their faith in their political worldview, which has had two principle effects – toxifying our political discourse and making people more susceptible to the “false prophets” of which Yarbrough warns.

Professor David Hillel Gelernter once said in an interview:

The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology. But a citizen with faith in a political position, instead of rational belief, is a potential disaster for democracy. A religious believer can rarely be argued out of his faith in any ordinary conversational give-and-take. His personality is more likely to be wrapped up with his religion than with any mere political program. When a person’s religion is attacked, he’s more likely to take it personally and dislike (or even hate) the attacker than he is in the case of mere political attacks or arguments. Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics.

We see this all the time in our political discourse. This is the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics writ large. This is the result of our ridiculous, overwrought obsession with inequality, even as living standards for nearly everybody continue to improve and we all benefit from technologies and inventions which were unthinkable half a century ago.

And if failed centrism really is leading to “radicalisation” by unscrupulous false prophets (and I don’t much like the use of that word outside of its applicability to terrorism, particularly because the Left is now eagerly using it to smear conservatives on any pretext, suggesting that newspapers like the Sun and Daily Mail are somehow “radicalising” the ignorant white working classes) then it becomes all the more important for our main political parties offer visions of their own which amount to more than technocracy and navel-gazing obsession with public services.

For a long time I thought that people actually liked the politics of Me Me Me, and that our craven politicians were simply responding to public demand with their endless manifesto bribes. But perhaps I was wrong. Though Jeremy Corbyn certainly offered a record-breaking basket of electoral bribes in the Labour Party manifesto, people also seem to have responded to him because of what he represents. In other words, Corbyn’s increasing viability amounts to more than the sum of the various bribes in the 2017 manifesto, even the student loans pledge.

The Conservatives, therefore, cannot afford to leave the ideological field open for Jeremy Corbyn to occupy on his own. The Tories need to do much better than mount their usual snivelling defence of fiscal restraint, couched in the craven acceptance of leftist frames of reference, and actually come up with an alternative vision of Britain worth voting for.

Theresa May isn’t going to do that, and neither are any of the dismal individuals tipped by the Westminster media as being most likely to replace her. So, who will come and save the Conservative Party from themselves, and save the country from Corbynism in the process?

 

Jeremy Corbyn - Glastonbury stage

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Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

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A State Of Unpreparedness: Lessons In Disaster Recovery From The Grenfell Tower Fire

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross

The chaotic government response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has made it worryingly clear that despite extensive legislation and incredible local spirit, Britain’s civil contingencies and disaster preparedness protocols are not fit for purpose

“The Government’s handling of risks and emergencies in recent years has failed to inspire public confidence. In a range of crises, from the Foot and Mouth outbreak through to the grounds for war in Iraq, official predictions or capabilities have been found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 tenders reassurance by the promise of systemic planning and activity in civil resilience, though defence lies beyond its scope. The wide-ranging powers in the Act have the capability of delivering on the promise. But, as shall be revealed [..] efforts will be hampered because the legislation is hesitant and uneven.”

– Clive Walker and Jim Broderick, The Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Risk, Resilience and the Law in the United Kingdom

And so, on Sunday, the inevitable happened: the government took over direct control of the Grenfell Tower disaster relief efforts from the beleaguered Kensington & Chelsea borough council, following days of disturbing reports about a lack of proper coordination on the ground.

At the government’s request, the British Red Cross has now expanded from providing psychosocial support, fundraising and donation processing services to being the primary coordinator of the community assistance centre, distributing donations and being the single point of contact for anybody needing help. While organisations like the Red Cross had been on-site in some small capacity even while the fire still burned, they are now to significantly step up their presence and the type of support they are offering.

The Times reported:

The British Red Cross was drafted in to help with disaster relief in west London last night after Theresa May admitted the initial response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was “not good enough”.

The charity, part of the International Red Cross, which is more usually deployed in war zones and after natural disasters in the developing world, was recruited to give “psychological support” to survivors and the emergency services.

May praised the response of the fire brigade, police, NHS services and the local community as “heroic”. But in her first admission that the official response failed survivors and relatives of the dead, she added: “Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.”

Senior staff at Kensington and Chelsea council were ordered to stay at home yesterday after ministers decided they were not doing a good enough job.

Instead, officials with crisis experience were sent in from Westminster and other councils as well as Whitehall departments.

More disquieting accounts of the local council’s failure to get a grip:

A senior government source said Kensington council had been “decapitated”. Ian Austin, the Labour MP, said: “Isn’t it a good job that we’ve got charities and aid workers ready to step in when one of Britain’s richest councils can’t sort its own mess?”

While Paul Waugh provided this rather more encouraging update on Tuesday:

At last, the authorities seem to be getting some kind of grip on the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. The PM chaired the first taskforce meeting yesterday and last night had some stats that showed progress, with £200,000 being distributed yesterday from the £5m emergency fund.

The Grenfell Response Team – a pan-London, Whitehall, police and British Red Cross effort – said 78 families were on course to be rehomed locally by Monday night. And 126 hotel places have been found. DCLG expected all councils to tell it by last night how many tower blocks needed extra safety checks.  Testing of samples of cladding begins today with all councils told to assess their building materials.

It is heartening to see the situation finally being stabilised, but it is also slightly worrying that it took a Cabinet-level intervention – with the prime minister taking personal charge of the taskforce only to delegate the heavy lifting to the Red Cross – to bring what is effectively (considering all of the worse possibilities lurking in the shadows) a mid-sized disaster relief campaign back under control.

But at this point they had no option. It has become increasingly clear since the Grenfell Tower fire that while our emergency services are incredibly brave and well-trained, there is no similarly disciplined and well-equipped group able and fully prepared to step into the void to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of a disaster once the first responders have done their job.

Frustratingly, it quickly became evident that the huge outpouring of public support for the survivors and bereaved was not being effectively harnessed and proactively directed to those in greatest need – not through any absence of goodwill but because of a failure to properly plan and delineate responsibilities.

And as the days wore on following the tragedy, there grew a disquieting sense – first highlighted on this blog, and later expanded upon – that our civil contingency procedures are not working properly, and that ultimate responsibility for dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty incident with major damage inflicted is currently falling down the gaps between central government, local government, charities and private citizen volunteers, none of whom have an incentive to take ultimate ownership or be the public face of the response. And so a giant flaw in Britain’s emergency planning measures revealed itself.

The lynchpin of Britain’s emergency response protocol is the Gold-Silver-Bronze (or strategic, tactical and operational) Command structure, which was designed to coordinate the response of emergency services to a serious situation but which in actual practice is also used to organise preparedness for other events such as football matches and concerts.

But the Gold-Silver-Bronze Command structure – established after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, strengthened by the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and invoked as part of standard practice in response to the Grenfell Tower fire – is clearly inadequate to dealing with the aftermath of a disaster from the point when the “blue light agencies” (fire, police, ambulance) have brought the immediate issue under control.

The Gold Command structure is useful primarily for coordinating the activities of first responder agencies from a strategic and tactical level. It has far less applicability when it comes to dealing with the human aftermath in the event of displaced or homeless people, where the police have only a limited role and the fire and ambulance services almost no role. The British Red Cross, for example is not wired in to this command structure as a matter of course, even though it has become evident that no other British agency possess the expertise and experience in dealing with the humanitarian aspect.

This is a design flaw that has lurked unnoticed for a long time. The vast majority of incidents in which the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure is utilised, from football games to terrorist attacks, do not take place in residential settings – so once a situation has been brought under control and the locality is cleared, non-injured people can be reasonably expected to find their way home and fend for themselves. There is no humanitarian aspect, so to speak, as soon as the last victim has been put in an ambulance and carted off to the hospital or coroner.

But in the event of a disaster such as Grenfell Tower, where domiciles themselves were destroyed, there is often no home or alternative shelter to go to. After the fire, people found themselves homeless and in the well-meaning but erratic initial care of various community groups, religious organisations and the local Kensington and Chelsea council, outside any formal command structure overseen by government.

Unfortunately, the council’s role in coordinating the response and the amount of effort required on their part was not properly spelled out in advance in our emergency planning laws. Ironically, the level between Gold Command and Central government, which once defined the role of regional government offices in responding to a disaster, was abolished under the previous Conservative-LibDem coalition government.

Thus, in yet another example of the gross overcentralisation of all aspects of British government, local councils were effectively cut out of the loop when it came to disaster response, at least formally speaking. This is probably why it took the better part of a week – and was trumpeted as a huge achievement when it finally happened – for Kensington & Chelsea council workers assisting in the relief effort to even be issued with official council staff vests so that people could easily identify them and seek assistance.

From the Guardian:

At the Westway centre where the relief effort is being coordinated, there appeared to be evidence of much greater efficiency in efforts by councils, the Red Cross, the NHS and other officials to help residents after days of chaos. For the first time employees of Kensington and Chelsea were visible wearing nylon vests marking them out as council staff.

This, apparently, is what happens when you cut an entire layer of government out of emergency planning and disaster preparedness protocols without properly thinking through the consequences. Even wearing matching clothes becomes a challenge. We should be glad to hear that the relief effort is now finally being coordinated more effectively, but one wonders what is the point of local government if it is to have no formal role (let alone overall responsibility) for keeping citizens safe and ensuring their welfare following a disaster?

It need not be like this. When I first flagged concerns about the Grenfell Tower disaster relief operation on this blog, I recounted my experience of watching state government, local government and voluntary aid organisations working seamlessly together following a deadly tornado in Missouri:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town two days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

And all this in a town of little more than 50,000 people, far away from any real centre of political power or commerce in America. One shudders to think what might have happened if the Grenfell Tower fire had taken place somewhere further from the beating heart of our own democracy, perhaps in Sheffield or Newcastle or Glasgow.

In some ways, perhaps, the response might have been better – with fewer local resources to be brought to bear on the challenge, more may have been sent by other regions and leaders may not have been so quick to assume that somebody else was taking charge. Equally, the Grenfell Tower response may have suffered because people assumed that being in London, the logistical and welfare planning would take care of itself.

Ironically, the government’s own document – “Emergency Response and Recovery: Non statutory guidance accompanying the Civil Contingencies Act 2004” – discusses at length the importance of this phase. They even give us this helpful Venn diagram:

Civil Contingencies - Disaster Recovery - Grenfell Tower

 

There is no lack of consideration given to all of the aspects on which a proper Disaster Recovery plan should touch – see page 83 onwards in the report.

But the guidelines also go on to give these instructions:

5.2.1. The local authority is the agency responsible for planning for the recovery of the community following any major emergency, supported by other local partners via the Local Resilience Forums (LRF). In most cases, it will be sensible for top tier local authorities to lead but all local authorities and Category 1 responders should input. If there is more than one top tier local authority in the LRF, they should work together to co-ordinate recovery planning.

5.2.2. Following an emergency, the local authority will usually co-ordinate the multi-agency recovery process, including by chairing and providing the secretariat for the RCG, with support from the full range of multi-agency partners as necessary.

5.4.1. Activation of the Recovery Co-ordinating Group (RCG) is initiated by the local authority, usually following a request by / agreement with the Strategic Co-ordinating Group (SCG). An important part of the work of the RCG during the response phase of an emergency is to develop a recovery strategy (see paragraph 5.4.4) and inform the SCG of this strategy to ensure decisions made by the SCG do not compromise medium to long term recovery.

So the local authority – in the case of Grenfell Tower that would be London’s Kensington & Chelsea borough council – is nominally responsible for the “recovery of the community”, yet was partly cut out the direct interface between national government and the emergency services (through the Gold Command structure) when regional government offices were disbanded following the Coalition reviews.

To make things even more confusing, this document was produced by a group called the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, established in 2001 as a department of the Cabinet Office tasked with overseeing emergency planning in the UK. And we learn from the Metro newspaper that in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd “chaired a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat” to “coordinate the response to the disaster”.

So who was really in charge of the disaster relief response effort? Nick Hurd, in his role as chair of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat meeting following the fire? Katharine Hammond, director of the CCS since 2016? Theresa May, for ordering that the CCS convene in the first place? Kensington & Chelsea borough council, in accordance with the leadership role assigned by the CCS’s own guidelines, published in 2005 and updated in 2013? Central government, in its role as the “platinum” COBR level sitting above the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure? Piers Morgan? Bigfoot?

It seems that we have protocols in place that are not worth the paper they are printed on – guidelines which foresaw a potential role for local Tourist Boards and even English Heritage in disaster recovery protocols, and yet failed to anticipate the degree to which the Grenfell Tower survivors and bereaved relatives of the victims would come to rely on the Red Cross and an army of disorganised but good-hearted independent volunteers to pick up the government’s dropped ball.

If the British Red Cross (rather than local government) is to be called upon to take operational control of the recovery process following any disaster with significant humanitarian implications then this should be clearly specified and written down in procedures, both to avoid confusion and duplication of effort but also to give the Red Cross a fighting chance of being ready to step into this role in the many various potential emergency scenarios tracked by the government.

In many ways, this would be a brilliant and quintessentially conservative solution – rather than forcing the state to duplicate services and expertise already provided by the charitable sector, instead we formalise their role and integrate them more tightly into our national emergency planning protocols. Rather than seeing the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster as an opportunity to expand the boundaries and competencies of the state even further, instead we formally recognise that voluntary organisations are best equipped to translate a huge and overwhelmingly generous public response into meaningful assistance for disaster victims.

But even if we don’t adopt this approach – even if we create a new government Disaster Recovery Agency to do the same job – at this point we just need to make sure that somebody, anybody is clearly given ownership of this phase of the emergency response process, as well as the authority and resources required to do the job.

Ultimately, it should not have taken the national government five days to recognise that our existing disaster recovery processes – in this case, seemingly half-heartedly managed by a local council whose role in the process was made murkier, not clearer, by recent guidelines – are inadequate to even a medium-sized incident in the heart of our capital city.

The Grenfell Tower fire had exposed serious failures, not just of political leadership (which this blog has covered extensively here, here and here) but crucially of planning and organisation. And we do not live in the kind of quiet, uneventful era where such government confusion and incoherence, broadcast to the entire world on television and the internet, can be permitted to continue.

This is a national security issue as much as an humanitarian one. And the worrying gaps in our civil contingencies protocol must be filled, quickly.

 

UPDATE: 21 June (15:55)

In her Commons speech following the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May finally acknowledged some of these failings:

 

The prime minister also stated that in addition to the judge-led inquiry the government would also consider implementing a Civil Disaster Response Taskforce to look at how disaster recovery processes can be strengthened and improved.

From Hansard (my emphasis in bold):

I would also like to say a few words about the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The whole country was heartbroken by the horrific loss of life and the utter devastation that we have seen. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and families of all those who lost loved ones. Today, we also think of those who survived but lost everything. One lady I met ran from the fire wearing no more than a T-shirt and a pair of knickers. She had lost absolutely everything.

Let me be absolutely clear. The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, and without even basic information about what had happened, what they should do and where they could seek help. That was a failure of the state—local and national—to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure and, as Prime Minister, I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks.

There will also be an independent public inquiry, chaired by a judge, to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and those affected will have their legal costs paid. Because it is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has not been able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency. We must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters when bereaved families have not had the support they need.

Good. This is exactly what needs to happen – a thorough review of the way that Britain’s emergency services, voluntary organisations and different layers of government respond to the aftermath of any incident with humanitarian implications.

This blog’s concern would be that Theresa May’s instinct for authoritarianism and centralisation makes it more likely that we will see an entirely new agency created as an outcome of this review, paralleling much of the work already done by voluntary and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. We should actively guard against this approach during the Taskforce once it is established.

But duplication of effort and concerns over the size and scope of the state must take a back seat to public safety. First and foremost, local and national government should be empowered to keep the people safe and provide for their welfare in the event of disaster through the application of clear and realistic protocols. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, these protocols were found wanting. Hopefully now we will take the action needed to make them fit for purpose.

 

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross - 3

Top Image: British Red Cross

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