Henry Bolton And The Death Of UKIP

Henry Bolton - UKIP leadership - vote of no confidence

As party leader Henry Bolton gives a majestic display of the power of denial and refuses to resign, UKIP seems determined to go out not with a bang but a whimper

What an ignominious end for a political party which only a couple of years ago seemed to be dictating the rhythm of British politics and the headlines of our newspapers. But after a slew of leadership changes, cringeworthy scandals and bizarre disciplinary issues it seems pretty clear that there is nothing now left worth salvaging.

Several of the party’s remaining senior figures (none really warrant the title “big beast”) have resigned from the party following leader Henry Bolton’s refusal to immediately stand down after a unanimous vote of no confidence in his leadership, and everyone else may as well just follow suit and cut up their membership cards because there is no positive outcome to be had. Either Bolton tries to cling on until UKIP becomes a party of one, or he goes and makes room for another nonentity aboard the party leadership carousel.

Political parties drift when they lack any kind of unifying purpose or positive vision (though sometimes a strongly negative, reactionary position will do just as well in a pinch). We saw this with Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party when the centrist “moderates” were found to believe in nothing and stand for nothing, and we see it now in the Tory Party as Theresa May’s government fiddles while the few forward-thinking people in the party are shooting off in a million directions with their own uncoordinated plans for conservative reform.

UKIP have less of an excuse for their current predicament, though. It was always known that they would face an existential moment of reckoning in the event that an EU referendum was secured and won, and they did far too little – probably nothing – to prepare for that moment. And for a single-issue party (or at least a party viewed by many to be single-issue) this was an unforgivable strategic error.

I covered and live-blogged the UKIP annual conference in Doncaster back in September 2015, when the referendum had been secured but the official campaigns had not yet officially kicked into gear. I wrote going into the event that this was a “make or break conference”, not because of the referendum but because this was the last, best opportunity to solidify exactly what it was that the party stood for besides secession from the European Union before the referendum and its aftermath would signal the closing of that window.

As I wrote back then:

When we look back on 2015, this could be seen as the conference which makes or breaks UKIP. Not in the sense that any careers are on the line today, or that terrible consequences await any missteps made over the next few days. But decisions taken at this conference – and more importantly, the general tone and sense of direction given by the party leadership – could be vital in determining whether UKIP is strongly positioned to survive the turmoil of the next five years in British politics, or if the party is destined to go the way of New Labour.

As long as the target of the 2016/2017 Brexit referendum looms ever larger in our sights, the unlikely coalition that makes up UKIP’s support base are likely to continue cohabiting without any real problem. But what happens when the European question is settled?

UKIP is a vastly more established political party than it was this time last year, and is almost unrecognisable from the party it was at the time of the last election, back in 2010. And this has been an unquestionably good thing for our stale, consensual politics.

However, interested observers will be watching closely for any signs indicating the type of party UKIP is likely to become by 2020. And a lot could ride on the answer.

And unsurprisingly, UKIP totally ducked the challenge at their conference. Everybody who wasn’t indulging in the traditional UKIP pastime of shooting themselves in the foot with unnecessary squabbles and gaffes was drunk on referendum fever and in no mood to contemplate any event past June 2016, be that their preferred method of Brexit (a failure which has already come back to bite) or the preferred shape of their party when banging the eurosceptic drum no longer attracts votes.

Nigel Farage himself offered only a vague non-answer:

 

Over the course of the conference I spoke to a number of senior UKIP figures in addition to Nigel Farage, including Mark Reckless, Douglas Carswell and a number of lesser-known but deeply involved activists, and of those people only Douglas Carswell had a vaguely plausible vision for what UKIP could become – a vision that was so at odds with Nigel Farage’s own that Carswell jumped/was pushed out only eighteen months later.

 

Thus the tension between the various different UKIPs was never resolved. The party continued to be a fractious circus tent encompassing a dwindling cohort of libertarian types, a rump of ex-Conservative eurosceptics and an influx of new, more economically left-wing voters and activists.

Immediately after the 2015 conference, I wrote:

The United Kingdom Independence Party currently draws its support from a number of quite distinct support bases. There are the social conservatives and traditionalists, mostly ex-Tory voters. Then you have the “lost Labour” voters, those who are repelled by the modern Labour Party’s superficial virtue signalling, unquestioning embrace of uncontrolled immigration and perceived lack of patriotism.

There is also a significant body of support from the so-called economically “left behind” voters from Britain’s faded coastal resort towns, where pro-UKIP sentiment is very strong. And finally, there are the young (and old) libertarian types – for so long the backbone of the party, until relatively recently.

All of these disparate groups are currently joined under the UKIP banner in an uneasy alliance because they share the common goal of a Britain independent of the EU. But what happens when the EU referendum is won (or lost)? What, if anything, will keep these separate groups together in the post-election landscape?

That’s the conversation which should have started taking place at this conference. But it is a conversation which has been assiduously avoided by nearly everyone, including the party leader.

There was very much a self-sacrificial tone at that 2015 party conference. Nigel Farage seemed to have little concern that the party might burn up in the wake of the EU referendum, no doubt presuming that his own personal prospects would be fine in any event. But nobody else in the party had any excuse for so much complacency. And the personal squabbles and increasingly ludicrous crises to rock the party are partially a result of that failure to plan for the future.

As I write, Henry Bolton is giving a statement to the press in Folkestone affirming that he has no intention to resign, and instead proposing a new party constitution – in the hubristic manner of all banana republic dictators in history. Others know the detailed history of UKIP, with all of its personality clashes and policy squabbles, far better than I. But I can’t help feeling a little sad that the most consequential insurgent political party in decades seems so determined to end not with a bang but a whimper.

 

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Left-Wing Brexit Acceptance Award

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Finally, a prominent left-wing voice that accepts the result of the EU referendum and does not drip with contempt for democracy and the people’s choice to leave the EU

In his latest piece for the Independent, John Rentoul gives us that rarest of things from the political Left – a gracious and measured acceptance of Brexit.

Right off the bat, Rentoul declares:

There are two common views among people who wanted to stay in the EU that I think are mistaken. One is that David Cameron made a foolish and unforgivable mistake in promising the referendum. The other is that the result was obtained by a campaign of lies.

My contentions are that Cameron was forced to promise a referendum by the very democratic pressure that produced the vote to Leave, and that the referendum was about as fair as the rough and tumble of democracy usually is.

And Rentoul is quite right, I think, to state that with the rise of UKIP, never-ending power grabs from an increasingly tone-deaf EU and the systematic crises (euro, migration) facing the union, a referendum was ultimately coming, one way or another, regardless of whatever David Cameron did:

Cameron knew that if he didn’t promise a referendum, his party would become even harder to manage and it would lose votes to Ukip. As it turned out, he had a choice between cutting his throat and slitting his wrist: he could lose the election in 2015 and be thrown out of office or he could lose the referendum a year later and be thrown out of office. Being a politician – that is to say, human – he chose to maximise his chance of winning in 2015 and hoped that winning in 2016 would take care of itself.

Rentoul accurately notes that euroscepticism is hardly a new phenomenon in Britain. While we may not have been asked our opinion on the matter since the 1975 referendum, there has always been a significant chunk of the population opposed to our EU membership, even before mass immigration from eastern Europe or the euro crisis  were factors:

It may be objected that polls did not find that the EU was a priority for voters, and that support for leaving became significant only after the 2008 banking crisis. But there has been a majority in the British public for leaving or for reducing the EU’s powers since 1996, according to the British Election Study (page 6), and immigration has been named as one of the three most important issues facing Britain since 2001, according to Ipsos MORI.

But even more encouraging (from a Brexiteer’s perspective) is Rentoul’s refusal to fall back on lazy Remainer self-delusions that the Leave campaign had a monopoly on lies and misinformation, and that it was this uniquely one-sided dishonesty which somehow tricked a gullible population and swung the referendum:

The second complaint by many Remainers is that the people voted to Leave on the basis of disinformation. There is an implication that journalists failed in their duty to fact-check the post-truth politics – a criticism that must sound familiar in America.

But I don’t think the argument holds up. One of the surprising things about the referendum was that we didn’t hear that much about Eurosceptic press barons dominating the debate. This may be because they didn’t. The media landscape in Britain has been utterly transformed by the internet – as I know well, working for the first national newspaper to go online-only.

If you look at the readership of British newspapers, print and online, not only does The Independent have more readers than The Sun – not many people know that – but the total readerships of newspapers advocating Leave and Remain were about the same (of the 13 weekday newspapers, the Mail, Telegraph, Express, Star and Sun advocated Leave, with 95m monthly readers; the Guardian, Mirror, Independent, Standard, Times, Daily Recordand Scotsman advocated Remain, with 97m monthly readers; the Metro had no position). There are other new news sources online, Buzzfeed and other rivals of The Independent that I won’t mention, but overall I think the media was fairly evenly balanced.

As Rentoul points out, the Evil Murdoch Press doesn’t have quite the vice-like grip over the minds of the British people as many a Corbynite (or even a New Labour centrist) likes to believe. People consume their news from a variety of sources, and exist in social media bubbles of all kinds – pro-EU as much as eurosceptic.

More:

All the same, there were claims made in the campaign that were – I prefer not to call them lies – not absolutely evidence-based. The most prominent was the claim by the Leave campaign that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU. We don’t. It’s about half that. The Leave people justified it by saying it would be £350m if we didn’t have the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1985. Their argument is that politicians will be tempted to negotiate the rebate away in future – Tony Blair, for example, allowed it to be diluted when new countries joined the EU in 2004.

Most journalists reported that it wasn’t true. The trouble is that saying, “It’s not £350m a week it’s £180m a week,” didn’t really help the Remainers. It drove them mad because the Leavers kept on using the £350m, and the Remainers kept saying it wasn’t true, drawing attention to it, and reminding voters that we send a sum of money too big to be understood to the EU every week.

Besides, the Remain campaign was putting out leaflets claiming that for every pound we put into the EU we got £10 back. I wouldn’t describe that as absolutely evidence-based either.

Many of us – this blog included – campaigned long and hard and angrily about Vote Leave’s disingenuous “£350 million for the NHS” pledge, pointing out that it was false and that it served as a greater propaganda tool for the Remain campaign with which to attack Brexiteers than as an argument for leaving the EU. But Rentoul is quite right – the true figure of c. £180 million is just as impactful, and quantitative scaremongering claims by the Remain campaign were no less manipulative and deceitful.

This blog has been busy handing out awards for grotesque Brexit catastrophisation with some relish, so it is only fair to acknowledge times when those from the political Left exceed the low expectations which have too often been set by politicians and the media class. Rentoul’s overall assessment is quite right – the EU referendum campaign was cacophonous and messy, but it was in no way tilted in favour of the underdog, insurgent Leave campaign, and would never have succeeded if it had not ignited already-latest anti-EU feelings among entire swathes of the British people.

So credit where credit is due: John Rentoul is one of vanishingly few prominent left-wing commentators to broadly accept the result of the EU referendum with no ifs, buts or asterisks. If only other left-wing politicians and commentators found it within themselves to do the same, their political movement might not now be facing unprecedented unpopularity and rejection by the British people.

 

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Remainers Are Trying To Rewrite History, Claiming Media Coverage Favoured The Leave Campaign

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Yes, the BBC let the public down with their spineless, uninquisitive EU referendum coverage. But this only benefited the Remain campaign, not the Brexiteers, and to suggest otherwise is absurd

Disappointed Remain activist Hugo Dixon takes to the pages of InFacts with with a sullen litany of the many ways in which the (ahem) notoriously eurosceptic television news media supposedly hindered the pro-EU camp’s chances and aided the fact-free Brexiteers at every turn.

Dixon writes:

The BBC has rightly been criticised for its weak referendum coverage. If the broadcaster had done a better job of challenging interviewees, informing the public and making room for a variety of viewpoints, voters would have had a better chance of sifting fact from fiction. The BBC, after all, dominates our news coverage: 77% of the public use it as a news source, according to Ofcom.

The most common criticism aired against the BBC is one of phoney balance – namely that it gave equal airtime to experts and their opponents’ unsubstantiated bluster. But this is probably not the most serious charge. After all, it would not have been fair to deny the two sides of the referendum equal airtime or to keep off the air campaigners who were telling fibs or spinning fantasy.

However, what the BBC could and should have done was grill its guests more vigorously – and make more space for coverage that didn’t fit into the tired Punch-and-Judy style battle between spokespeople put up by the two official campaigns.

There is a kernel of a sensible point in here. This blog has written numerous times that sensationalist or craven news coverage which merely allows two opposing talking heads to scream at each other without any effort to arbitrate or discern truth is a pox on our journalism – whether it is infecting the US presidential election or the EU referendum in Britain.

Dixon is also admirably on-point when he criticises the media’s reliance on the sanitised, focus-group approved  media grids of the two opposing lead campaign groups, effectively suggesting to their viewers that these incompetents and nepotism beneficiaries represented the full spectrum of eurosceptic and pro-European thought:

This wasn’t the BBC’s only failing. It also allowed too much of its coverage to become a Punch-and-Judy style battle between the official campaigns. The broadcaster, of course, had to give a lot of airtime to Vote Leave and Stronger In. But it allowed its coverage to be virtually dictated by their agendas.

I know the Remain side of the story better. Stronger In had a “grid”, on which it set out what stories it wanted to push on particular days and which people it wanted to push those messages. It coordinated this grid closely with Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s director of communications. Indeed, Stronger In was effectively in Number 10’s pocket. It rarely put forward people who weren’t on message with its Project Fear strategy.

The BBC should not have allowed itself to be manipulated in this way, particularly since it was aware of the potential problem. Its guidelines said: “Where there is a range of views or perspectives, that should be reflected appropriately during the campaign.” They went on to say: “The designated Campaign Groups – whilst offering spokespeople to programme-makers and other content producers – cannot dictate who should or who should not appear on BBC output.”

But the broadcaster didn’t do enough to resist the pressure. As a result, Downing Street and its puppets dominated the Remain camp’s share of airtime, and people who wanted to make a positive case for Britain’s involvement were edged out. Even Gordon Brown – who was trying to argue that we should lead Europe, not leave Europe – found it hard to be heard.

While Hugo Dixon’s heart wells over with sympathy for Gordon Brown’s inability to claim his fair share of the limelight, this blog would point to the many independent and non-aligned voices on the Brexit side who struggled to get a hearing of any kind, despite (in some cases) holding media events in the heart of Westminster under the very nose of the establishment.

So on both of these complaints, Dixon is on solid ground. But to go on and suggest that intellectually lazy journalism which impacted the Leave side every bit as much as the Remain campaign somehow decisively swung the outcome of the referendum is to venture into the realm of fantasy.

Dixon concludes:

For every such example, the BBC could presumably come up with a counter-example. But when its senior figures search their souls, do they really think they fulfilled their mission of informing and educating the public well during the referendum? And, if not, what are they going to do about it? How about an independent, public audit of how the BBC fared during the referendum backed up by recommendations on how to do better in future?

The world is not getting any simpler. Hard, honest thinking about how to cover often very complicated questions could stand the BBC in good stead. Audiences and license fee payers definitely deserve it.

The underlying assertion, carefully left unsaid, is that these various journalistic failures added up to a succession of “microbiases” which somehow cumulatively tipped the referendum result, and that if only BBC and other television news presenters had challenged guests and demanded more “facts” then the British people would have come to their senses and realised just how star-spangled awesome the European Union really is.

And maybe in an alternative universe that was the case – that there simply weren’t enough highly credentialed experts, both hysterical and sober, using abundant media platforms to lecture the British people that seeking freedom from the EU would be an unmitigated disaster.

Why oh why were these noble voices, these latter-day Cassandras so cruelly shut out of the national debate, swamped by a relentlessly pro-Brexit television media amplifying the Leave campaign’s monopoly on falsehoods and scaremongering?

But that’s not how I remember the EU referendum campaign.

Hugo Dixon inhabits an interesting parallel universe, and no doubt a comforting one for disappointed Remain campaigners so deeply invested in their failed euro-federalist dream. But it bears no resemblance to the real world, where the plucky, haphazard, incoherent and almost terminally disorganised Leave campaign triumphed against the arrayed forces of the establishment and a television news media which only amplified rather than diminished their influence in support of the status quo.

 

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The Economic Challenges Beyond Brexit

Bitter, swivel-eyed (and unrepentant) europhile he may be, but the FT’s Martin Wolf makes some valid points in his latest column, warning against any complacency that Britain’s persistent economic weak points will be automatically restored to health upon leaving the European Union.

Wolf writes:

British economic policymakers confront big challenges. They have to manage departure from the EU with the minimum damage. They also need to make the UK economy far more dynamic. The latter cannot be achieved if they do not abandon the myth that Britain is already an economic success, albeit one choked by the dead hand of an over-regulated European economy.

Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform provides a far more realistic picture in his Brexit Britain. Measured at purchasing power parity, the rise in the UK’s gross domestic product per head between 2000 and 2015 was smaller than in Germany, Spain and France. Over this period, the UK outperformed only Italy, among the EU’s largest pre-2000 members. In 2015, the UK’s GDP per head was lower relative to the average of the 15 pre-2000 EU members than in 2000: its GDP per head was a mere ninth within this group.

The UK also has the highest income inequality among these countries. Furthermore, notes Mr Tilford, UK real wages fell by 10 per cent between 2008 and 2014, before a tiny uptick in 2015, while German and French real wages rose. In 2015, only London and the South-East had higher GDP per head than the average of the EU-15 countries. Other UK regions were at or below that average. In all, it is hardly surprising so many UK voters feel left behind, as shown in the EU referendum.

True, the increase in French real wages has coincided with high unemployment. But that is not true in Germany. UK workers also work longer hours than those in other EU-15 countries. This is presumably to make up for low real wages, themselves largely due to the UK’s poor productivity. According to the Conference Board’s invaluable “total economy database”, the only EU-15 countries to have lower output per hour than the UK are Greece, Italy and Portugal, while the UK’s productivity per hour has stagnated since 2007. Again, of the biggest five EU-15 members only Italy performed worse on this measure. The UK also now runs the largest current account deficit, relative to GDP, in the EU-15.

The UK, then, has low unemployment. But it also has high inequality, mediocre real incomes, at least by the standards of its European peers, and poor external competitiveness. Above all, recent productivity growth has been truly awful.

These are hard, inescapable criticisms – particularly in terms of productivity growth and purchasing power parity, which is ultimately the only yardstick that matters in terms of whether people actually feel better off.

And concludes:

The implications of a realistic view of the UK economy is that, even without the looming shock of Brexit, the economy suffers from big weaknesses relative to the European economies that many Brexiters despise. Some argue that a real depreciation of sterling is mainly what is needed. If sustained, the post-referendum devaluation should indeed help, though it means a fall in real incomes and wealth. Yet devaluation alone will not cure UK weaknesses.

The UK has to rectify longstanding supply-side failings. The list includes: low investment, particularly in infrastructure; inadequate basic education of much of the population and the innumeracy of much of its elite; a grossly distorted housing market; over-centralisation of government; and a corporate sector whose leaders are motivated more by the share price than by the long-term health of the business. Not surprisingly, given all this, the UK economy is highly dependent on inward foreign direct investment, which Brexit would seem virtually certain to weaken.

If the UK is to thrive economically, it will not be enough for it to manage Brexit, hard though that will surely be. Its policymakers must also start from a realistic assessment of the UK’s mediocre performance. This is no world-beating economy. It is not even a Europe-beating economy, except on creating what are too often low-wage jobs. It will have to do far better if it is to deliver the higher living standards its people want in the tougher environment ahead.

The danger with Brexit was always that the sheer complexity of managing our secession from the European Union would prove too much for a mostly unremarkable generation of politicians and civil servants, nearly all of whom have never known life outside the EU and can scarcely imagine self-government. Even now, three months after the historic Brexit vote, there is little evidence that the government has started to get to grips with the challenge ahead of them.

Therefore, it is not unreasonable to ask – as Martin Wolf does – how much mental capacity will be left to tackle other burning issues like Britain’s low productivity, the low-skill / low-wage segment of the economy or decades-old weaknesses in British management, identified by Thatcher’s Conservatives in the late 1970s but still barely tackled even now.

And I’m not sure there is a quick fix to this problem. Brexit will inevitably dominate the political agenda, probably for the next decade, to the near exclusion of all else. And even if there was excess capacity, there is precious little evidence to suggest that Theresa May’s new government has a blazingly clear vision for reforming Britain anyway – as Isabel Hardman outlines in this excellent Spectator piece.

In short: many of these problems, though long-festering, are probably going to have to wait to be tackled, unless the government surprises us all with its radical zeal and far-reaching reform plans at the upcoming Conservative Party Conference, which seems unlikely at best.

If you wake up to discover your house is ablaze and smoke pouring into the bedroom, you don’t waste precious minutes ensuring that you are beautifully dressed and immaculately turned-out before evacuating the building. Likewise, in whatever shape Brexit ends up happening, Britain will likely emerge from the EU in much the same shape as before, with the same nagging issues and weaknesses clamouring to be addressed.

Inspiring? No. Ammunition for assorted bitter Remainers, EU-lovers and anti-patriots? Sadly, yes. But that is our lot. Brexit is likely to be a grinding, painstaking, lengthy process at the end of which the same Britain will be blinking back at us, largely unchanged, with all the rest of our work to realise the benefits of Brexit still ahead of us.

But does that mean the enterprise is not worth the effort? Hell no. And it is very telling to see those who are prepared to steel themselves for the work ahead, and those who seek to use it as a whinnying justification for giving up.

 

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Brexit Catastrophisation Watch, Part 1

Since there seems to be no imminent end to the petulant, childish rage of disappointed Remain supporters at the prospect of being forcibly ripped away from their beloved European Union, we may as well start cataloguing some of the most hyperbolic and far-fetched tales of woe and prophesies of doom.

The inaugural submission comes, naturally, from the Guardian:

Social services for older and disabled people face crisis because post-Brexit migration restrictions could cause a massive shortage of care workers, leading care organisations have said.

The 1.4-million-strong UK care sector’s reliance on European migrant workers means it is vital they are given the right to remain in any future migration arrangements, the charities Independent Age and the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC-UK) said.

Currently about 84,000 care workers – equivalent to one in 20 of England’s growing care workforce – are from European Economic Area countries. About 90% do not have British citizenship and their future immigration status remains uncertain.

The charities said failure to tackle workforce shortages would mean thousands of older people would lose out on support, meaning they could be left housebound, struggle to recover properly from a stroke or fall, or fail to get assistance in getting up and dressed in the morning.

Translation: overturn the EU referendum result, or granny gets it.

(Note too the hyperbolic doomsday assumption of “a scenario which closed off all migration”, something which no serious person expects to happen).

The counterargument to this mini-tantrum, of course, is that cheap, young foreign labour from the EU and elsewhere has helped to ensure that care workers in Britain are paid an absolute pittance – often hovering around minimum wage – for performing a physically and mentally taxing job requiring skill, tact, empathy, good humour and great emotional intelligence in order to look after our loved ones in their final years.

The surly Guardianista charities moaning about the potential impact of Brexit on their sector clearly have no qualms or concerns that a worker can often make more money flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant than caring for our elderly and infirm senior citizens. This is just fine, apparently. But the mere possibility that free movement of labour restrictions might force employers to pay less desultory sums of money to frontline staff sends these “charities” into paroxysms of terror and rage. Whose side are they on? Not that of the patients or the care workers, that’s for sure.

Want to stop the endless drip-drip of care home abuse scandals? Try getting outraged that care is a borderline minimum wage occupation in this country, understand that people who might just as easily be flipping burgers for a living won’t always display the same dedication as Florence Nightingale – and be inordinately grateful for those care workers who do possess these criminally undervalued qualities. And in the meantime, forgive me for questioning the calibration of these charities’ moral compasses.

But why should we be surprised by their intervention? Everything about modern leftism and pro-Europeanism revolves around signalling virtue and ostentatiously displaying the “right” progressive beliefs to the right people.

And right now, it is far more important to be seen opposing those awful racist Brexiteers than it is to question the moral sustainability of an industry which hits its profit margin targets by providing our oldest and most vulnerable citizens with a Tesco Value standard of care.

 

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