Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

william le queux, german spy system, spy novelist

By 1900 William Le Queux had already written over 20 spy and war pot-boilers spurring invasion fears and infiltration by Kaiser Wilhelm’s agents. When this book was published in 1915, Le Queux had asked for police protection from German agents but the authorities declined. He was ‘not a person to be taken seriously’.

Modern British spy fiction dates from the beginning of the 20th century as an expression of the anxieties of international rivalries. The British took most readily to spy fiction and it is British writers which have received most critical attention and acclaim. Spy stories provide a window into the shadowy world of espionage and clandestine operations for readers who have been denied knowledge of the activities of British Intelligence through official silence, gagging and cover-ups. Perhaps it’s not surprising that many writers of British spy novels were themselves employed by Britain’s intelligence services and consequently brought a supposed authenticity to their stories. One such writer has even invented a new vocabulary to describe the tradecraft of the spy and in doing so has made it seem more credible.

The Birth of the Spy Novel 

The earliest example of the espionage novel was The Spy (1821) by the American novelist James Fenimore Cooper. The action takes place during the American Revolution with the forerunner of the spy, Harvey Birch, peddler and patriot, weather-beaten, canny, mysterious, prowling about on his subtle errands, pursued by friend and foe, and finally driven to his destiny, which at once both destroys and honours him.

The Dreyfus affair in France in which a young artillery officer was falsely convicted of treason in 1895 and sentenced to life imprisonment for allegedly communicating French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris, dominated and divided French politics. Though Dreyfus was eventually exonerated in 1906, the details reported by the world press in the intervening years with tales of penetration agents of Imperial Germany betraying the secrets of the General Staff of the French Army, and French counter-intelligence agents sending a charwoman to rifle the waste papers baskets of the German Embassy in Paris, contributed much to public interest in espionage and inspired the writers of spy fiction. This extraordinary miscarriage of justice was the basis for An Officer and A Spy (2014) by Robert Harris.

Early British Spy Novelists

joseph conrad, secret agent, adolf verloc, greenwich observatory, spy novelist

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel set in 1886, has indolent Adolf Verloc working as a spy for an unnamed country (presumably Russia). He has to redeem himself as a agent provocateur by blowing up Greenwich Observatory.

The major themes of spying in the lead-up to the First World War were the continuing rivalry between the European colonial powers for control of Asia, the growing threat of conflict in Europe, the domestic threat of revolutionaries and anarchists, and historical romance.

One of the first novels by a British writer to introduce intrigue and rivalry between powerful countries was Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901), in which Kim, the orphan son of an Irish soldier, journeys across India against the backdrop of The Great Game, the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia in the mid 1880s. The ‘spy novel’ was defined in The Riddle of the Sands (1903) by Robert Erskine Childers, in which amateur spies discover a German plan to invade Britain. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes became involved as spyhunter in The Adventure of the Second Stain (1904). The Anglo-French journalist and writer William Le Queux capitalised on invasion fears in The Invasion of 1910 (1906), one of his many pulp-fiction spy stories that had been published going back to 1894. The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad examined the psychology and ideology that motivated the members of a revolutionary cell who were determined to provoke revolution in Britain. G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) was a thriller based on the infiltration of an anarchist organisation by detectives; but it was also a vehicle for exploring society’s power structures.

During the First World War 

john buchan, thirty nine steps, richard hannay, spy novelist

John Buchan’s novel was written in 1914 before the outbreak of the First World War. The hero Richard Hannay bumps into a freelance spy, who is then murdered, and he has to go on the run from the police. He is pitted against German spies and the Black Stone group who are fomenting war in Europe.

During the War, John Buchan, who had worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau, became the pre-eminent British spy novelist. The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), an archetypal English spy thriller, was the first of five novels that featured Scotsman Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. In the novel which was set just before the outbreak of war in 1914, Hannay discovers a plot by German spies to steal British naval intelligence, but is forced to go on the run to Scotland to escape the police who suspect him of murder. At the end of the novel, the spies are waiting in a house in Kent above a private beach where a yacht is waiting until high tide to take the spies back to Germany. The path down to the beach has 39 steps. Buchan described his novel as a ‘shocker’, an adventure where the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe that they really happened.

The Inter War Period

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the spy story was often concerned with combating the ‘Red Menace’, which was perceived as another ‘clash of civilizations’. Mysterious characters who threatened anarchy and who sought to overthrow governments were common in these stories. In 1922, Agatha Christie’s second detective novel, The Secret Adversary introduces the characters of Tommy and Tuppence, a duo of likeable upper-class detectives, who land themselves in all sorts of dangerous situations. They are employed by the British Government to locate a secret treaty signed before the war which if revealed could lead to a Bolshevik coup. The pair has to find out the identity of Mr Brown, the Bolshevik’s shady and elusive puppet-master.

Spy fiction was dominated by British authors, often former intelligence officers and agents writing from inside the trade. In his collection of short stories Ashenden: Or the British Agent (1928), W Somerset Maugham portrayed spying in the First World War. It is said that he based Ashenden on himself and on his experiences working for the intelligence services in the First World War. The Mystery of Tunnel 51 (1928) the first of 24 spy and mystery novels by Alexander Wilson conveyed an uncanny portrait of the first head of the Secret Intelligence Service, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the original ‘C’, the initial that is still used as a signature by the head of MI6. Though there is no evidence that Wilson worked for the intelligence services in the First World War, Wilson led a mysterious and secret life. There were suspicions that he was involved in shady diplomacy in India in the 1930s, and he did work briefly for MI6 in the Second World War until he was dismissed because he faked a burglary in his London flat and because he was in trouble with the police.

compton mackenzie, water on the brain, spy novelist

Written in 1934, Water On The Brain was an unkind satire on the inadequacies of the British secret services. In a plot of Byzantine complexity British agent Major Arthur Blenkinsop is sent to the fictitious country of Mendacia. The novel was Mackenzie’s revenge for his having being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act the year before.

Water on the Brain (1933) by Compton Mackenzie, best known for his comic novels set in Scotland, Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen, was the first successful spy novel satire. Mackenzie worked for British intelligence in the Eastern Mediterranean during the First World War, and later published four books on his experiences. Mackenzie was prosecuted in 1932 for quoting from supposedly secret documents but the trial ended with him being fined £100.

The Dark Frontier (1936) by Eric Ambler was the first of six novels that he wrote  in the years leading up to the second world war, which brought a new realism to spy fiction. His tales of ordinary men and (sometimes) women caught up in the machinations of malign international corporations, or of stateless refugees facing an uncertain future in a volatile and unwelcoming Europe, revitalised the British thriller, and rescued the genre from third-rate imitators of John Buchan. Above Suspicion (1939) by Helen MacInnes about an anti-Nazi husband and wife spy team, was the first of many fast-paced spy novels occurring against contemporary historical backgrounds.

 

 

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PointofViewThe Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain said in 1886, and the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson said much the same in 1964, that ‘in politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight’. We will soon know the reforms that David Cameron has been offered by the European Union as a result of his around the clock diplomacy. If he accepts what is offered, selling it to a bitterly divided Cabinet and to his party, let alone to voters, will be a nightmare. It is like a box of fireworks, which when lit will go off in unpredictable directions. But the government stands to lose either way.

Following its unexpected general election victory in May 2015, and no longer restrained by its coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative government is moving Britain towards a one-party state, in which the free market must be allowed to reign unchallenged. But leaving the EU risks a collapse in confidence in Britain’s financial markets. Many right-wing MPs believe that regaining parliamentary sovereignty is paramount and want to leave the EU regardless of whatever concessions are made by the EU. They are even more in thrall to a laissez-faire economy, and they also believe that by leaving the EU, Britain’s economy will flourish.

The future of the Conservative government is on the line, not just on the referendum, but on many other critical issues right up to the next general election in 2020. My own predictions out what is going to happen in that time are at the end this post. But first, how are we drifting towards a one-party state?

The Path to Power

ParliamentVotesPerMPThe Conservatives won the general election in 2015 with 37% of the vote. Labour got 30% of the vote, the Liberal Democrats 8%, UKIP (the UK Independence Party) 12%, and the Greens 4%. Yet under the first-past-the post-system (FPTP), the number of MPs voted in had little to do with the number of votes cast for a particular party as the picture to the left shows.

There was of course a referendum in 2011 on changing the electoral system, but the only voting system that the coalition government, led by the Conservatives, would agree to be put to the people was based on the Alternative Vote (AV). This had previously been described by Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, as a ‘miserable little compromise’, and it was loved by no one. The Electoral Commission’s explanation of the AV system was hideously complex, whilst that for FPTP took only three sentences. In the end, the No campaign, supported by the Conservatives opposed, was dirty and deceitful, whilst the Yes campaign, half-heartedly supported by the Labour Party, was lack-lustre and muddled. The outcome was almost 70% voting against a change and 30% in support.

Despite there being electoral systems elsewhere that link a party’s tally of votes to its tally of seats, mention anything to do with the constitution to many people and their eyes will glaze over. Unsurprisingly the turnout in the 2011 referendum was only 42%. But the reality is that under FPTP a small number of swing voters can decide who is in government.

There is a good explanation here, published by the Electoral Reform Society, of why FPTP is such an undemocratic method of electing our MPs, and why it doesn’t deliver what it claims.

Holding On To Power

The government has made or is making major changes to political processes so as to ensure that the chance of opposition parties forming a government, whether one party or as part of a coalition, is dramatically reduced.

  • the Chancellor in his 2015 autumn statement announced plans for a 19% cut in state funding for opposition parties, the so-called ‘Short money’ named after the former minister Edward Short, who devised the system in 1974. This was to compensate opposition parties for not having access to Whitehall resources and it has been in place for 40 years. The move will hit the finances of Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and other smaller parties, with the Labour Party set to lose £1m. The government though has relatively free rein to appoint its own special advisers paid for by the state, and since 2010 the cost of this has increased from £5.0m in 2009 to £8.4 in 2014.VoterRegistrationStudents
  • the government has changed the method of voter registration so that individuals have to register by 1 December 2015 in order to remain on the electoral list. Previously registration was done on a household by household basis. The government cited the need to stop fraudulent voting and to remove ghost entries, though fraud is almost non-existent. The Electoral Commission warned at the time that this could disenfranchise almost two million voters. The majority of these voters are young people and students, or people from ethnic minorities, people who are more likely to vote for opposition parties. These lost voters, together with the estimated 8 million people who are missing from the register, equates to 19% of all eligible adults not being on the electoral register. No major national campaigns are planned to persuade people to register.
  • in the Trade Union Bill now going through Parliament, the government is attempting to change the basis on which trade unions are able to make donations to the Labour Party. The outcome will be that the party will lose millions of pounds. The Conservative Party’s main sources of funding, corporate and private donations, which include 50 or so multi-millionaires, will remain untouched.
  • the government’s increasing use of statutory instruments as a back door means to change legislation, as opposed to Bills being presented to Parliament, has soared under the present government. George Osborne used a statutory instrument to introduce proposed cuts to tax credits. When the House of Lords opposed this, criticising the government for legislating through the back-door, Osborne attacked the House of Lords as an unelected body. The House of Lords should of course be an elected second chamber, but contrary to its feigned outrage, the government has thrown every obstacle in the path of reform of the second chamber. Osborne with no sense of irony threatened to flood the House of Lords with new Tory peers so that their defiance could not be repeated.

Incidentally the government’s intention to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600, and for number of electors within each constituency to be within 5% of the average number, which was agreed by Parliament in 2011, will now be progressed by the Electoral Commission. Whilst it is estimated that Labour will lose 20 seats as a result, the principle of having constituencies of more equal size cannot be said as such to be undemocratic as has been argued by some.

What is undemocratic is that FPTP will continue to be used to decide the winner in each of the ‘more equal’ constituencies. The winner can take all just by a few voters changing how they vote. The theoretical absurdity of FPTP is that one party could win every one of the 600 seats in Parliament with just a majority of one in each. No opposition MPs at all in Parliament? Just 600 votes could do it.

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In December this year there will be a UN climate change conference in Paris. Scientists and environmentalists have said that this is the last chance for governments to act to keep the increase in global warming to within 2 degrees. The effects of a 2 degree rise in the temperature of the atmosphere are serious enough, but rises above this level will increasingly threaten human life on the planet.

Population, Consumption & Global Warming

Increasing population and increasing consumption have caused global warming by the continued burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. Global warming is causing more extreme weather, droughts and reduced crop yields, more wildfires, rising sea levels and flooding, loss of sea ice and glaciers, changes to the range of animals and plants. But increasing population and consumption have had other consequences as well. The resources of the planet that we rely on: the forests, rivers and lakes, the seas and oceans, the diversity of wildlife, the soils and minerals, are all being depleted or destroyed. The current world population today is 7.35 billion (considered by some environmental scientists to be already two to three times higher than what is sustainable). This is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 (and it is not expected to level off as previously thought).

And humans are living in increasingly crowded and polluted cities in a state of growing inequality and scarce resources. Desertification and conflicts over water scarcity and land grabs are leading to increased migration.

People in Developing Nations Want the Same as Us

The over-consumption of food, fuel, building materials, and manufactured goods in developed countries has played a major part in the depletion of the earth’s resources, but people in the developing world understandably desire the same things: more and better housing, heating and lighting; more cars and roads, more electrical goods, more shops and malls, more food and more meat, more flying as people want to travel overseas, and so on. An obvious example is China. China today has 78 million cars. If China was to have as many cars per person as in Britain (approximately one car for every two persons), then the number of cars in China would increase ten-fold to 705 million. This alone would require the current number of barrels of oil produced in the world today to increase from 87 million a day to 132 million a day. To build this number of cars (and to build their replacements when they become obsolete) would require a dramatic increase both in the materials that would have to be extracted from the earth, and of the energy required to build them. Also to be considered are the additional roads that China would have to build and the effect of a huge increase in pollution in its cities, many of which are already heavily polluted.

It is self-evident that the resources of the earth on the planet are finite; our exploitation of those resources is unsustainable. With the UK general election taking place on 7 May, are people in Britain aware of these issues?

ofcom, bbc one, itv, bbc website, sky news

According an Ofcom survey in July 2014, the most used news source is BBC One, which is used by 53% of people. 33% of people use ITV as their main source, 24% use the BBC website or app, and 17% use Sky News

How do people find out what’s going on in the world?

People in Britain get their news from an average of 3.8 different sources ie. newspapers, TV, radio, website or app, or social media. The main reason given by people in Britain for following the news, almost three in five people, is to find out ‘what’s going on in the world’. The top ten media news sources in 2014 were, in descending order, BBC One, which is used by 53%, ITV by 33%, BBC website/app by 24%, Sky TV by 17%, BBC News channel by 16%, The Sun by 11%, BBC Radio 2 by 10%, The Daily Mail by 9%, BBC Radio 4 by 9%, and Channel 4 and Google jointly used by 8% (Ofcom figures)

And so for the first time, adults are more likely to access the internet or apps for their news rather than newspapers, 41% compared with 40%. In any case, you will read very little about what is happening in the world, let alone the issues referred to at the beginning, in tabloid newspapers in Britain, and I don’t think that you will much about them either in some of the broadsheet newspapers.

So newspapers are no longer so influential. Television and websites are now the main sources of news for the majority of people, and the effects of global warming and environmental issues are covered by these media, though the depth of the reporting is extremely variable. But these global issues are overwhelmed by other hard news such as the economy and jobs, housing, the NHS, education, crime, immigration, welfare and pensions.

What are the issues that voters are most concerned about?

2015 general election, most important issues for voters. ipsos mori survey

These are the most important issues facing Britain today according to an Ipsos MORI survey of a 966 British adults between 6th and 15th February 2015.

Pollsters have been out and about trying to find out the issues that voters are most concerned about. When it comes to global warming and sustainability, the issue doesn’t seem to come up at all. The nearest seems to be the vague ‘care for our environment’ or the all-embracing ‘environment/transport’. This may be because pollsters have pre-determined what should be on the list of issues that voters are asked to rank as ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’. Of course they might be right: that it isn’t on their lists as global warming is not a priority issue for most voters.

But it is not as if the threat to the human race is below the news radar. On Wednesday this week, the Independent reported climate scientists as saying that there is now is a one in ten risk that atmospheric temperatures could increase by 6 degrees by 2100. This would lead to cataclysmic changes in the global climate with unimaginable consequences for human civilisation. Would you fly on an aircraft if there was a one in ten risk of it crashing? Are we all keeping out heads in the sand. Is it a case of tomorrow being just another day?

What are the political parties going to do about global warming & sustainability?

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titus oates, popish plot, perjury, pillory

Oates’ false accusations in 1678 led to the execution of at least 15 innocent men. Although initially he found favour with Parliament, he was arrested in 1681 for sedition. In 1685, with James II on the throne he was retried and imprisoned for life for perjury, and to be whipped through the streets of London for five days a year. This is a contemporary engraving of Oates in the pillory prior to his being paraded through London.

I was listening recently to an episode of the seven part chronicle of the Stuart dynasty on BBC Radio 4 written by radio dramatist Mike Walker, when Charles II (played by Pip Torrens) refers to Titus Oates as being a member of the Green Ribbon Club.

Oates was the fabricator of the ‘Popish Plot’ in 1678, a supposed conspiracy by Catholic Jesuit priests to kill the king which caused a wave of anti-Catholic feeling to sweep across the nation. Following the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the English parliament proclaimed Charles II to be king in 1660, the Restoration. Although Charles favoured a policy of religious tolerance, parliament enacted several laws designed to secure the dominance of the re-established Church of England. In 1672, Charles attempted to suspend all penal laws against Catholics and other religious dissenters, but Parliament opposed this and forced Charles to agree to laws that forced public officials to receive the sacrament prescribed by the Anglican church and to denounce certain teachings of the Catholic Church. The 1670s were beset by suspicion and accusation about the religious affiliation of individuals, and plotting and counter-plotting by political opponents, and it was during this decade, that the Green Ribbon Club came into being.

The Green Ribbon Club was one of the earliest of the loosely combined associations which met from time to time in London taverns or coffee-houses for political purposes in the 17th century. The ‘Green Ribbon” was the badge of The Levellers in the English Civil Wars, a political movement which emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage (voting rights), equality before the law, and religious tolerance. One of the taverns in which they met was The Rosemary Branch in Islington which got its name from the sprigs of rosemary that Levellers would wear in their hats as a sign of identification.

green ribbon club, king's head tavern, chancery lane, london

The meeting place (marked in yellow) of the Green Ribbon Club in the King’s Head tavern on the corner of Chancery Lane and Fleet Street in London (click to enlarge)

The club was likely founded around 1675 and it met in the King’s Head tavern in Fleet Street in London, and was first known as the King’s Head Club. Many of its members had fought in the civil war and were hostile to the court of politicians holding power in London. They were in the habit of wearing a bow or bob of green ribbon in their hats which was used for mutual recognition in street brawls. About 1679, the name of the club was changed to the Green Ribbon Club.

Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, a prominent politician and one of the founders of the Whig Party which opposed an absolute monarchy, may have been the President of the Green Ribbon Club. Though Shaftesbury was one of twelve members of Parliament who invited Charles II to return to England, he later argued in favour of frequent parliaments and argued that the nation needed protection from the potential Roman Catholic successor to King Charles II, his brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York. James was suspected of being pro-French and of having designs on becoming an absolute monarch.

The Green Ribbon Club actively promoted the Exclusion Bill which sought to exclude James from the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland. The Tories were opposed to the bill and ‘Whig’ became a term of abuse for those who supported it. The fervent Tory Samuel Johnson often joked that ‘the first Whig was the Devil’. Though the bill was passed by Parliament in 1679, Charles II was forced to dissolve Parliament several times to prevent the bill coming into law. Ultimately however the succession was not altered, with James becoming king on the death of Charles II in 1685. The ‘Exclusion Crisis’ nevertheless contributed to the development of the English two-party system.

green ribbon club, king's head tavern, fleet street, london, pope-burning, william hogarth

This is a depiction by William Hogarth of a street celebration in 1653 outside the King’s Head tavern in Fleet Street applauding the dissolution of the Rump Parliament by Oliver Cromwell. This possibly fictitious scene likely resembles the Green Ribbon Club’s pope-burning processions which took place outside the King’s Head tavern in 1680 and 1681.

The Green Ribbon Club served both as a debating society and an intelligence network for the Whig faction spreading scandal and sedition throughout London. Bills under discussion in Parliament were debated by the members over their tobacco and ale, with the latest news from Westminster or the city brought in by an endless stream of supporters. The leader of the King’s government, Lord Danby, an opponent of all toleration, issued a proclamation, later withdrawn, for the suppression of coffee-houses because of the ‘defamation of His Majesty’s Government’ which took place in them.

Who were the members of the club? In 1979, Thomas Dangerfield, another conspirator and perjurer like Titus Oates, supplied the King with a list of forty-eight members of the Green Ribbon Club. As well as Shaftesbury, it included the Duke of Monmouth (an illegitimate son of Charles II who later led the unsuccessful rebellion to depose his uncle, then James II) and statesmen like Halifax, Shaftesbury, Buckingham, Macclesfield, Cavendish, and Bedford; together with former Cromwellian supporters like Lord Falconbridge, John Claypole and Henry Ireton (two sons-in-law and a grandson of Thomas Cromwell); and various profligates and scoundrels of the type of Oates.

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PointofViewIf the UK media can be believed the British public is clamouring for a greater use of referenda. People, they say, crave a direct say in determining the outcome of a debate or to dictate the direction of government action. Two issues dominate this thinking. The first is the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union and the second is the forthcoming vote on Scottish independence.

You may wonder why the media is behaving like this when they know as well as I do that we have a settled mature system of parliamentary democracy where decisions are taken by Parliament and the Government on our behalf. Every citizen is able to vote for their Member of Parliament and if they don’t like the way they have voted they can vote for someone else next time. However the reality is that a growing number of voters feel alienated or perhaps feel distant from the business of government and, God help us, politics!! In such circumstances a single issue referendum can appear attractive.

ReferendumDice1However, without being too condescending about it, most public issues are quite complex and few members of the public have the knowledge, expertise and in particular the time to get to grips with the pros and cons of arguments. That’s why, in theory, we have MPs appointed as government ministers who specialise in the affairs of a particular government department and who enjoy the support of experts and administrators of all kinds. Most importantly, ministers are accountable to Parliament, and MPs to the public who elected them, and they can be kicked out every five years in elections if we don’t like what they have done in our name. I contend that most people are busy enough with their own lives to be expected to additionally become experts in the pros and cons of, say, a parliamentary bill or a particular Government policy.

In my view referenda are a gift to obsessives and those with an axe to grind. They reduce issues to their bare essentials and ignore the broader consequences. I have no doubt that the death penalty would be brought back if the issue was subjected to a referendum. Would we really want that? Secondly the arguments for and against membership of the EU are extremely complex and in my view are impossible to whittle down to a simple yes or no answer.

ReferendumDice2There are exceptions of course, but rarely an issue does emerge that merits a referendum and I concede that for the people of Scotland the question of independence is one. However in my experience the media, and in particular certain ‘right wing’ print media, are greatly exaggerating the extent to which the public generally is clamouring for more referenda. Contrary to what they say there is very little evidence to support the assertion that public discourse in the pubs and clubs of the land is dominated by discussion on the need for a referendum on the EU. In fact the limited public surveys completed show that the European issue comes way down the list of subjects being discussed.

I do not consider myself to be an apologist for the status quo and I agree that politics in the UK is not conducted particularly well and certainly not in the interests of ordinary people. However I don’t believe a greater use of referenda is the answer as I fear that they would risk undermining the very principle of parliamentary democracy itself. This would be a perverse outcome when so many nations around the world are currently fighting to overturn unelected regimes in favour of parliamentary democracies.

Instead we should be considering steps to invigorate our parliamentary system to make it more relevant and accountable to the electorate and especially to younger voters, who if Russell Brand is to be believed, have given up on voting. Clearly this task is not helped by the low standing afforded to politicians by the public. There is a lack of trust and confidence in MPs that they can have any meaningful impact on our lives as UK citizens. Additionally many people are cynical and distrustful of all politicians believing them to be all the same and full of self-interest. The expenses debacle and to an extent the Iraq war, were clearly contributory factors. (more…)

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How is the copyright on a liquorice allsort and a caricature of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher connected?

In February 2010, Sylvester McCoy who played the seventh Doctor Who from 1987 to 1989, claimed, according to DailyTelegraph, that he and Andrew Cartmel, a script editor at the time, were part of a conspiracy in the late 1980s to give episodes of Doctor Who an anti-Thatcher plot. In the article, McCoy, who took over as Doctor Who three months after Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory in 1987, said that they brought politics into the show ‘deliberately’ but ‘very quietly … We were a group of politically motivated people and it seemed the right thing to do. Our feeling was that Margaret Thatcher was far more terrifying than any monster the Doctor had encountered’.

Cartmel, who was asked by the programme’s producer at the time, John Nathan-Turner, what he hoped to achieve in being the show’s script editor, recalled ‘My exact words were: I’d like to overthrow the government.’ In an article in The Guardian however in 2013, John Nathan-Turner is said to have replied ‘Oh you can’t do that on Doctor Who, all you can do is say that purple people and green people are equal and should live in harmony’.

sheila hancock, ronald fraser, happiness patrol, doctor who, bbc, margaret thatcher

Sheila Hancock with Ronald Fraser as Joseph C. Though Sheila Hancock was not told that the character of Helen A was based on Margaret Thatcher, she realised this early on and ‘went for it’. Hancock stated that she ‘hated Mrs Thatcher with a deep and venomous passion’.

The Happiness Patrol written by Graeme Curry was broadcast in three episodes in November 1988 and was part of the 25th series of Doctor Who. It featured a transparent caricature of Thatcher, Helen A, the vicious and egotistical ruler of an Earth colony Terra Alpha, played by Sheila Hancock. On Terra Alpha, sadness is against the law – a law zealously enforced by the Happiness Patrol. The penalty for those found guilty of gloom or melancholy is death in a stream of molten candy prepared by Helen A’s chief executioner and confectioner supreme, the psychopathic and robotic killer, Kandy Man, played by David John Hope.

The first episode opens with the Doctor, and his young companion Ace, travelling to Terra Alpha to investigate why its citizens are disappearing without trace. The last episode shows the time travellers helping to foment rebellion amongst the downtrodden population who toil in the factories and mines. The Doctor calls on the ‘drones’ to down their tools and revolt. The script-writers intended this to be an echo of the miners’ strikes and printers’ disputes during Thatcher’s first two terms in office.

doctor who, kandy man, happiness patrol, bbc

Doctor Who confronts the Kandy Man. The appearance of the Kandy Man has been variously described as the weirdest or most ridiculous monster of the era. The Doctor however simply outwits the Kandy Man by gluing him to the floor with lemonade.

In the final episode, while a revolution rages outside the palace walls, the Kandy Man is destroyed by a flow of his own ‘fondant surprise’ which dissolves his external candy shell. And in a low-key comeuppance, the Doctor confronts Helen A and tries to explain that happiness can only be understood if counterbalanced by sadness. As Helen A weeps over her dearly departed lapdog monster Fifi, she experiences her own sadness.

Cartmel said that ‘Critics, media pundits and politicians certainly didn’t pick up on what we were doing. If we had generated controversy and become a cause célèbre we would have got a few more viewers but, sadly, nobody really noticed or cared’. The story has been described as a political allegory of Thatcher’s Britain, and as a morality tale. The Daily Telegraph article added that a spokesman for the BBC said it was ‘baffled’ by the claims. Following falling viewing numbers, no further series of Doctor Who were commissioned after the 26th series in November 1989. Except of course in 2005, the BBC relaunched Doctor Who after a 16-year absence.

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spencer perceval, prime minister, assassination, house of commons

The assassination of the Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in the lobby of the House of Commons on 11 May 1812

Just over two hundred years ago, on 11 May 1812, John Bellingham, a Liverpool businessman shot dead the Rt Hon Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister at the time, as he entered the House of Commons. Spencer Perceval is the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.

At 5.15 on the evening of Monday 11 May 1812, it being a fine evening, Spencer Perceval walked from 10 Downing Street to the Houses of Parliament to attend a debate in the House of Commons. The debate was to rescind the ‘orders in council’ that prevented nations trading with France. These were the chief plank in Perceval’s policy for the defeat of Napoleon.

Outside of the lobby to the House of Commons Perceval handed his coat to the officer positioned outside the doors, but as he entered the lobby a man who had been sat near the fireplace, stepped forward, and without saying a word drew a pistol and shot Perceval in the chest. Perceval fell to the floor, after uttering something that was variously heard as ‘murder’ or ‘oh my God’. They were his last words. By the time he had been carried into the nearby office of the Speaker’s secretary and propped up on a table, he was senseless, although there was still a faint pulse. When a surgeon, William Lynn, arrived from Great George Street a few minutes later, the pulse had stopped, and Perceval was declared dead. The surgeon noted a wound three inches deep on the left side of the chest over the fourth rib where a large pistol ball had entered.

Perceval’s body was taken back to 10 Downing Street, and on the following morning an inquest was held at the Cat and Bagpipes public house on the corner of Downing Street, and a verdict of wilful murder was returned.

spencer perceval, prime minister, george francis joseph

Spencer Perceval
British Prime Minister
4 October 1809–11 May 1812
Born 1 November 1762
Painting by George Francis Joseph, 1812
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Spencer Perceval, the younger son of an Irish earl, was 49 at the time of his death and had been Prime Minister under George III (and the Prince Regent during the ‘madness’ of George III) since 4 October 1809. He was a follower of William Pitt (the previous Prime Minister but one), but described himself as a ‘friend of Mr Pitt’ rather than a Tory. Perceval was opposed to Catholic emancipation and reform of Parliament; he supported the war against Napoleon and the abolition of the slave trade. He was opposed to hunting, gambling and adultery, did not drink as much as most Members of Parliament, gave generously to charity, and enjoyed spending time with his wife Jane and their twelve children.

Perceval’s assassin did not attempt to escape from the House of Commons but calmly returned to his seat beside the fireplace. Sir Banastre Tarleton and Isaac Gascoyne, the two MPs for Liverpool, identified the man as John Bellingham, a merchant from Liverpool. The details of his story soon began to emerge. Bellingham had been imprisoned for debt in the port of Archangel in Russia in 1804 and had been held in various prisons for the next 5 years. The debt had been alleged by the owner of a Russian ship that had sunk in the White Sea, who believed that Bellingham had told Lloyd’s, the shipping insurers, that the loss of the ship was actually sabotage. During his time in prison, Bellingham had pleaded unsuccessfully with the British ambassador in St Petersburg and with British authorities for help with his case. On his release in 1809, he returned to England full of resentment. Bellingham believed the government was morally bound to compensate him for his loss of business. He petitioned the Foreign Secretary, the Treasury, the Privy Council, the Prime Minister, even the Prince Regent, all to no avail, the main reason being that Britain had broken off diplomatic relations with Russia in November 1808. Once again Bellingham felt that he was being ignored. Finally, he decided that the only way for him to get a hearing in court was to shoot the Prime Minister.

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