ROCK OF (OLD) AGES

PurplePopular music’s closest cultural allies have traditionally been other artistic mediums, whether cinema, literature or the visual arts; think of the incestuous relationships between Warhol, Bailey and Scorsese and the pop icons that graced their greatest works. Today I would say popular music’s closest cultural ally is the National Trust, because what brings in the money and keeps the industry staggering on is Heritage. From remastered upgradings of the same classic albums every four or five years to the glut of tribute acts playing karaoke versions of songs for those too young to have been around at the time to the eternal roadshow that is The Rolling Stones, Heritage Rock is where it’s at.

Mind you, it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that Rock has reached this stage; it happened to every musical revolution before it, after all. The fact that we refer to any post-Baroque and pre-First World War orchestral music as ‘classical’ is a retrospective repackaging that has elevated a once-radical art form to the level of inoffensive highbrow easy-listening, a fate that has befallen Rock even quicker than any genre that preceded it; the thought would probably have amused and horrified some of the counter-cultural renegades who lived fast and died young, but it is the durability of their recorded output that has provided the foundation for the elevation, and it is the gradual arrival of their original audience at a pensionable age that has facilitated Heritage Rock.

The recurring pattern of musical innovation is that it tends to reach a peak of experimentation that can often perch perilously on the cusp of unlistenable self-indulgence, eventually wearing out the patience of the audience; everyone admires a musician prepared to go where no musician has gone before, but a constant quest to break away from the rigid structures of a musical form has the potential to be a creative cul-de-sac as the innovator ends up screaming in an empty room. It happened with both Jazz and Classical in the 60s and with Rock in the 70s. A craving for the nursery rhymes of childhood resurfaces and there is a demand for a back to basics simplicity. However, once the backwards step has been taken, the innovation effectively ceases. Punk may have been a necessary evil, but was the destiny of The Sex Pistols to evolve into ELO after five years? There was nowhere left to go. As Duran Duran’s John Taylor once pondered to an interviewer quizzing him if his band could be ‘the new Beatles’, were Birmingham’s fab five supposed to progress by growing moustaches?

Since then, rock bands – or the rare ones averse to endlessly milking a hit formula – have struggled with where to go next. The first decade of Radiohead’s career is a case in point. From mastering the art of post-Nirvana, guitar-driven angst, Thom Yorke withdrew his regiment from the format that had brought them considerable rewards and did his best to incorporate avant-garde electronica into the mix; in this, he largely succeeded, with ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’ being amongst the few genuinely original sounding albums of the twenty-first century’s first decade, even if they alienated many who had lost their virginity to ‘The Bends’.

It’s not easy to break new ground in a genre that now has a history stretching back half-a-century, but acts that are desperate to do so also have to contend with operating in the shadows of predecessors who had the luxury of no history to hold them back. To paraphrase Noel Gallagher’s grasp of grammar, they really are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The success of magazines like ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut’ in primarily focusing on the pre-Heritage years when Rock was the refuge for Kamikaze outsiders is an ironic juxtaposition considering Heritage is their currency; but they have succeeded where periodicals dedicated to the here and now have failed because there is a larger public appetite for these years. Partly, it is generated by those who were there, a generation that now runs the media and has steadfastly refused to grow up, and partly by the fact that the landmark albums produced in the 60s and 70s remain the benchmark and inspiration for their children and grandchildren to aim for.

Overexposure doesn’t diminish the excellence of these recordings and coming to them with fresh ears can make them sound as good now as they did then. ‘Revolver’ can excite and astonish as much as Beethoven’s Ninth, and will probably continue to do so even when it has reached the same refined age as ‘Ode to Joy’. But the influence has to be absorbed as a spirit rather than swallowed whole, coming out the other end bearing little audible relation to its source; if not, it’s just another tribute band.

The speed of life as lived today has the power to make and break musical innovations with undue haste. It took around a decade for Hip Hop to advance from the crudity of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ to the complex tapestries of Dr Dre’s productions, whereas Dance music went from the clumsy, cut ‘n’ paste samples evident on Bomb the Bass’s ‘Beat Dis’ to the seamless mosaic of soundscapes that constituted the first Portishead album in the space of barely six years. In the case of Rock, the multiplying of subdivisions within pop has also served to create a musical apartheid, whereby categories and pigeonholes akin to those evident in old record stores sabotage the melting pot of influences that propelled The Beatles into unknown territory fifty years ago.

The 60s generation may have begun on the same showbiz bandwagon as their light-entertainment predecessors, but gradually created their own alternative framework that is now established as today’s equivalent of ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’; yes, I’m talking Glastonbury, the Brits, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ‘Rolling Stone’ et al. Any break with established musical forms must reject the whole industry that has grown up around them outright and concentrate on blending various bits of the music to forge them all into something new, both musically and culturally. In a week when a town crier in drag labouring under the misapprehension that she’s breathing the same rarefied air as Aretha Franklin is showered in statuettes, it’s time to rip it up and start again.

© The Editor

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NORMAL SERVICE WILL NOT BE RESUMED

BBCMargaret Thatcher once famously referred to television as ‘the last bastion of restrictive practices’, chiefly in relation to the monopoly enjoyed by the BBC and ITV and the way in which their unions were prone to disrupting broadcasting, both factors being contrary to her own business model. On the negative side, there was certainly enough evidence to back up her claim in terms of how union power had regularly held television companies to ransom. At BBC TV Centre, the technician’s union was notorious for switching off the power at a fixed time during the recording of a programme if it overran, but ITV suffered even more. Twice in the space of a year – the winter of 1978 and the summer of 1979 – all ITV stations were blacked-out (the second occasion for two whole months), losing ITV an estimated £100,000 in revenue, and ITV’s planned coverage of the 1984 LA Olympics was also curtailed just days before it was scheduled to begin due to union action.

Having successfully taken on the miners and the Fleet Street printers, Mrs T turned to television in 1987 when an Aussie ally called Brue Gyngell, recently installed as head honcho of ITV’s breakfast service, TV-am, decided to utilise new technology that would result in widespread redundancies. His plans led to a strike that took normal programming off the air; with Thatcher’s approval, Gyngell fired the strikers and replaced them with non-union staff. The ill-feeling between unions and management was irreparable, but for Mrs Thatcher what had happened at TV-am was the final straw. Her solution was the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

That Thatcher should seek to redesign television in her own free-market image perhaps came as no surprise, and the initial changes the Broadcasting Act wreaked on British television came in the new nature of the ITV franchise bidding. Thatcher had a bit of ‘history’ with ITV; her enmity towards the BBC was well publicised, but the controversy arising from Thames Television’s 1988 ‘Death on The Rock’ documentary, in which it was alleged that the members of the SAS who shot dead three IRA men in Gibraltar had carried out an effective assassination, had infuriated the Prime Minister. The furore that followed the transmission of the programme may or may not have influenced her decision to end ITV’s control of commercial television; but the Broadcasting Act was the beginning of the end for the structure that had served ITV well for thirty-five years.

Previously, a company’s record both in strong regional and networked programming was taken into consideration before deciding whether or not the franchise would be renewed or revoked. Now all of that was consigned to the same broadcasting bin as 405-line TV. It was perhaps characteristic of legislation introduced by Thatcher that the main criteria for acquiring an ITV franchise was now how high the bid for it would be. ‘Choice’ was the new buzzword within British broadcasting just as it was in every other deregulated industry; the introduction of cable and satellite channels posed the first threat to ITV’s undisputed dominance of the commercial TV market, and the cut-throat climate that the altered franchise round brought about had far more scandalous losers than TV-am, which famously lost its franchise, an unforeseen consequence of the changes. The system was open to abuse.

The BBC had responded to the changes in the television landscape following the Broadcasting Act by appointing former LWT bigwig, John Birt, as Director-General in 1992. Birt had arrived at the BBC five years earlier to become Director of News & Current Affairs, and immediately ruffled the feathers of widely-respected news reporters such as Charles Wheeler and Kate Adie by insisting that those in the field should submit a written outline of their reports before getting on with their jobs. It was this emphasis on increased bureaucracy that was to characterise Birt’s stint as Director General as he appointed a glut of highly–paid ‘consultants’, overseeing and interfering with the independence of programme-makers. He also introduced classic Thatcherite notions of ‘healthy competition’ between the various BBC departments; that these departments were now forced to charge each other for their services led to many programmes being farmed-out to independent production companies as a cheaper alternative, a move that would eventually lead to the gradual redundancy of British television’s very own Theatre of Dreams, BBC TV Centre in Shepherd’s Bush.

Before Birt, the BBC had been an effective co-operative, in which everyone had worked together for the common good; under Birt’s divide-and-rule stewardship, the organisation resembled the Circumlocution Office, bogged down by meaningless management-speak buzzwords and endless ‘initiatives’ intended to inspire more efficient and cost-effective productivity. Specialist BBC departments with decades of experience and a track record of getting the job done were replaced by endless layers of committees and executives with vague job descriptions later parodied with uncomfortable accuracy in the comedy ‘W1A’. Downsizing, a fresh addition to the TV lexicon, resulted in short-term contracts for new arrivals, hardly instilling a sense of loyalty to the Corporation. Anything deemed as unprofitable or incompatible with Birt’s vision was discarded, even the much-loved and highly-regarded BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had provided numerous BBC radio and television productions with ground-breaking avant-garde soundtracks for decades, contributing to the BBC’s uniqueness and distinctive identity in the process. Birt’s skewered method of saving money was to take it from those who could make it and hand it to those who had no clue of what to do with it.

With profit now regarded as more important than quality, programming noticeably suffered from the 1990s onwards. An endless conveyor belt of cookery, makeover, quiz and game shows dominated the primetime schedules, with less money diverted into drama or documentaries. In parallel with ITV, BBC TV seemed to view the best way of dealing with the increased competition was to compete on the competition’s own terms rather than those which the BBC had established over many years.

There are some who believe the appointment of such a Thatcher-friendly figure as Birt undoubtedly helped build a few necessary bridges between the BBC and the Government, enabling the BBC to survive the persistent threats of severe alterations to its charter. But there are more who believe the changes at the BBC that Birt instigated have directly or indirectly led to the constant problems the Corporation has been riddled with ever since. The increasing willingness of the BBC to spinelessly kowtow to successive Governments holding its precious charter as an effective hostage has on one hand resulted in the scandalous dismissal of Tony Blackburn this week and on the other, the expensive and unnecessary relocation of the majority of its home-made TV output to a charmless edifice in Salford with the utterly meaningless moniker of ‘Media City UK’; this was an attempt to appear less London-centric, a move that seemed strange considering the fact that the BBC has always maintained strong regional branches around the country. Surely the nation’s premier broadcaster should have its base in the capital city? With the likes of ‘Breakfast’ now presented from an anonymous citadel that guests have to be ferried to at great expense to the licence fee-payer, a showcase programme has been reduced to resembling a regional magazine show.

Twenty-five years since the Broadcasting Act was implemented across British television, it seems the BBC, like ITV, is still attempting to emulate the competition rather than obliterate it – and failing miserably in the process.

© The Editor

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FANTASY ISLAND

RTSay the words ‘Grange Hill’ to anyone of a certain age and a flurry of names will enter their head – Tucker Jenkins, Benny Green, Trisha Yates, Gripper Stebson and poor old ‘Row-land’ will probably spring to mind before any others. Plotlines will no doubt be quickly evoked too. There was one particular plotline in the early 80s that perfectly captured the hormonal turmoil of nascent adolescence, when an absence of sexual fact is compensated for by sexual fiction, though the two have a habit of blurring in the imagination. Yes, we might remember Duane having the hots for ‘Sexy Lexy’ and even enrolling in the extracurricular computer course in order to gaze at the object of his pubescent desire for an additional hour; but it was his pal Claire Scott whose unrequited passion for a member of staff landed that oblivious teacher in hot water.

Mr Hopwood – played by the same actor (Brian Capron) who drove Gail Platt and family into the Manchester Ship Canal a couple of decades later on ‘Coronation Street’ – was unaware his doe-eyed pupil had taken her infatuation with him to another level by recounting her fantasies in the pages of her diary. When her mother broke the golden rule by dipping into it whilst cleaning Claire’s bedroom, she reported what she assumed to be evidence of a genuine affair to her husband, prompting an incensed Mr Scott to storm up to the school and grab Mr Hopwood by the shirt collars, accusing him of something that would now lead to instant dismissal on the pretext of guilty till proven innocent.

Poor, humiliated Claire confessed it was all in her head and that Mr Hopwood had never laid a finger on her; but in an age when ‘Jackie’ magazine was still turned to for advice as the only help-line for young teenage girls focusing their embryonic lust on the nearest grownup male figure outside of family, Claire Scott’s predicament was genuine. It had happened for real just ten years earlier, as sensationally exposed in typically crass fashion by the News of the World in an early example of Rupert Murdoch’s grudge match against the BBC. Claiming ‘Top of the Pops’ was a hotbed of vice and debauchery (always the paper’s favourite subjects), the revelation emerged of a teenage member of the dancing studio audience who had written in her diary of a sexual encounter with one of the show’s hosts.

The girl’s mother got her hands on the diary, took it as Gospel, approached the BBC to lodge a formal complaint (without success) and the private document of her daughter’s fantasies then mysteriously fell into the hands of the Digger, who demonstrated his trademark tact and sensitivity by publishing extracts from it. When the ‘confession’ appeared in the News of the World, his breaking of the sordid little story pushed the girl over the edge and she committed suicide; a police investigation at the time (1971) exonerated the BBC, TOTP and the unnamed ‘seducer’ – a sad chapter in the show’s history that said more about the dysfunctional nature of a mother/daughter relationship than any perceived lack of moral fibre on the part of a programme produced under characteristically stringent BBC rules and regulations.

Over forty years later, the long-forgotten mini-scandal was dredged up anew during Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into Jimmy Savile’s alleged illicit activities on BBC premises; Dame Janet claims she couldn’t fathom why there was precious little evidence of this incident residing in the BBC archives, though a broadcasting institution that routinely wiped copies of its most popular shows in the 60s and 70s was hardly likely to retain every document relating to a brief episode in which every party involved had been cleared of any wrongdoing. Naturally, when a Fleet Street hungry for any Savile story – however dubious and fantastical – heard about this, their ears pricked up, and the wicked rapist of a 15-year-old girl simply had to be Sir Jimmy. Besides, the actual TOTP presenter named by the dead girl as her seducer, Tony Blackburn, couldn’t be ‘outed’ because he had taken the precaution of a super-injunction.

Now that has expired and Mr Blackburn has been named and shamed, how does his employer of many decades respond to the public revelation of something they were well aware of whilst continuing to pay his wages? It sacks him on the spot. Remember, Blackburn was exonerated in 1971 and once again when he was interviewed as part of Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry. So, that means he has twice been found not guilty of the accusation that has now cost him his job. He wasn’t even fired by the men in charge of the station he works for, Radio 2, but the actual Director General of the BBC himself, Tony Hall. The man whose voice opened Radio 1 in September 1967 is rightly furious and the statement he has issued to the press doesn’t see him mince his words. Legal action is threatened and it would seem he has a very strong case for wrongful dismissal.

Tony Blackburn was perhaps a tad too hasty to distance himself from Jimmy Savile when all that broke out at the end of 2012 and Paul Gambaccini was equally quick to point the finger at a dead man, regarding his reputation as a respected broadcaster and prominent media gay as a sure-fire safeguard against any accusations. He paid the price for his superiority complex and now one of the lowbrow broadcasters who personified the cheery cheese of Radio 1 when Gambaccini joined the station in 1973 has also been hung out to dry by a spineless, weak-kneed BBC as it bends over backwards to ensure its charter is renewed in the face of renewed hostility from a government on Murdoch’s payroll.

What this latest headline says about the BBC, the Metropolitan Police Force, the legal system, and the state of this country in 2016 seems pretty clear. There doesn’t seem much point in spelling it out.

© The Editor

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WE’VE BEEN TOGETHER NOW FOR 43 YEARS…

75 eThink of this as a trilogy. Providing a running commentary on something in the air means it’s hard to pick up much else on the old antennae this week other than the story that has comprised the last couple of posts, so bear with me one more time. But let’s take a different route with this ‘un and remind ourselves of where we were on the last occasion in which the people had a say in the Great European Experiment that went from economic cooperation to gravy train in the space of a generation. Thinking about it, nationwide exposure to the continent was pretty prevalent in the first half of the 1970s, thanks in the main to improvements in satellite technology and Britain’s membership of the European Broadcasting Union – even if technological improvements hadn’t progressed to preventing British TV commentators on European events still sounding as though they had socks stuffed in their mouths. In a way, however, that distinctive sonic effect was all part of the exotic alternative that Europe represented then.

75 iStuart Hall wetting himself at the sight of oversized figures banging into each other on ‘Jeux Sans Frontieres’; Terry Wogan’s wry commentary on the Eurovision Song Contest; European football featuring English clubs up against bent and bribed match officials (Salonica 1973 and Paris 1975 are dates to avoid if confronting a long-term Leeds United supporter); and, of course, BBC1’s school holiday dubbed mainstays of ‘The White Horses’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘The Flashing Blade’, and ‘Belle and Sebastiane’. The 1972 Olympics and the 1974 World Cup Final were both held in Munich – with European athletes and footballers claiming the cream of the headlines and the accumulated memories, whether Olga Korbut, Franz Beckenbauer or Johan Cruyff. Even the charts were infiltrated by a distinct Euro take on the British and American pop template – everyone from Focus and Golden Earring to Abba and Kraftwerk.

75 bIt seems only fitting that the UK was welcomed into the European economic club on New Year’s Day 1973; after the US-dominated pop culture of the 50s and the switch to Swinging England in the 60s, eyes turned to Europe in the 70s. Even before David Bowie relocated to West Berlin with Iggy Pop, the continent separated from British shores by the slim body of water that is the Channel was very much on the tip of Albion’s tongue. It’s always worth remembering that the initial admirable motivation of greater European integration emanated from the generation that had fought the Second World War (and, in some cases, the one that had also fought the First). If economics could prevent Europe from degenerating into a third conflict in the space of fifty years, so be it; yes, there was the not-insignificant factor of a certain wall dividing east and west, but perhaps the symbolic impact of that construction served to persuade the Western European powers a union was in everyone’s interests. After all, there was already a military link between them in the shape of NATO, so why not take the pact one step further?

75 fThe protracted withdrawal from Empire was something many European nations experienced in the 50s and 60s, and though France had a particular problem with Algeria, even they didn’t have the sheer number of humbling adjustments Britain had to make as one-by-one, the Union Flag was lowered throughout Africa, the Far East, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. We needed time to come to terms with our diminishing role on the world stage, and de Gaulle was especially attuned to our half-hearted commitment to Europe, vetoing our efforts to join the fledgling European Economic Community in the early 60s. Future PM Edward Heath’s place at the negotiating table during Macmillan’s tenure at No.10 remained paramount in his thoughts, so much so that when he eventually ascended to the pinnacle of power, Heath was determined to sign on the dotted line. That he did so without offering Parliament a debate on the issues involved, however, served to sow the seeds of mistrust and suspicion over precisely what he had achieved.

75 jThe Labour Party was particularly aggrieved that it hadn’t been able to pre-empt Heath’s success during the 1964-70 Government, and opposition between 1970 and 1974 presented Harold Wilson with a problem in that he instinctively had to challenge the Tories even if he secretly applauded what his nemesis had achieved. The solution to this dilemma came with the two General Elections of 1974, when Labour first promised a renegotiation of the 1972 terms of entry and then an unprecedented in/out referendum. To Wilson’s credit (albeit under pressure from his Industry Secretary, Tony Benn), the October 1974 Election promise was delivered and the first-ever national plebiscite was scheduled for the following June.

75 cBy this time, Heath had been toppled from his position as Tory leader by Margaret Thatcher, though the pair managed a rare moment of harmony when sharing a platform in the early days of the campaign as both advocated the ‘yes’ vote. At the time, the Conservative Party was largely united on its commitment to Europe, whereas it was Labour that possessed the most visible divisions. Although Wilson himself kept a discreet distance from the frontline, his highest-ranking Ministers, Jim Callaghan and Roy Jenkins, were prominent in persuading the people it was in their best interests to remain part of Europe. The latter even went so far as to stand alongside Heath and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, an experience he found liberating from Labour in-fighting and perhaps played a part in his eventual decision to breakaway and form the SDP a little over five years later.

75 aIn contrast to today, Fleet Street was more or less unanimous in its support of the ‘yes’ campaign and in an era when the dailies held a greater sway over public opinion than they could dream of in 2016, painting the ‘no’ group as a collection of untrustworthy misfits and renegades – everyone from Labour firebrands Foot, Benn and Barbara Castle to Enoch Powell and Ian Paisley – planted immense seeds of doubt in the minds of the electorate. When the vote finally took place, a unique departure from General Election traditions saw England and Scotland represented by their various counties rather than Parliamentary seats. As the overwhelming thumbs-up to continued membership of the Common Market emerged into the spotlight, only Shetland and the Western Isles rejected the proposition.

75 kIn retrospect, the 1975 EEC Referendum was the last hurrah for many of the political titans who had dominated British public life for the previous couple of decades. Politics was an impassioned playground in the 1970s, and the battle over Europe gave MPs confronted by a myriad of present problems the opportunity to point towards a brighter future, offering hope rather than the usual blood, sweat and toil. Heath never enjoyed such a high profile ever again (not in life, anyway), and neither did Powell or Castle; Wilson and Thorpe were both gone within a year (one went voluntarily; the other was forced to jump), and Jenkins’ failure to capture the Labour leadership in 1976 saw him scurry off to Brussels. It was the full stop on a tumultuous and turbulent period in not just the political but the social life of this country. What the fate will be of numerous public servants in the wake of this year’s referendum remains to be seen; but history does occasionally have a habit of repeating itself.

© The Editor

ET TU, BORIS?

BorisSo, Bo-Jo has gone and done it. The darling of the anti-Cameron right has once again highlighted his canny opportunism by coming out and declaring his pro-Brexit stance, thus enhancing his credentials as a potential PM in the eyes of the Sun, Mail and Express when Dave calls it a day – something that may come sooner rather than later if the Great British public goes with the ‘no’ vote. Of course, just as there’s more to Cameron’s pro-EU position than simply wanting to remain attached to mainland Europe, there’s a hell of a lot more to Boris’s public declaration than promoting the referendum we now know will take place on June 23.

Curiously, whilst David Cameron seems to embody all the privately-educated elements that irk those not fortunate enough to enjoy his privileges, the Mayor of London’s background is just as privileged, if not more so; his appearance on ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ revealed he was descended from George II, no less. But whereas Dave comes across as an insincere, vacuous posh boy whose desperate efforts to mix it with the plebs underline his cluelessness, Boris’s bumbling comedy persona and recourse to archaic ‘crikey’-isms unheard since the heyday of Billy Bunter have endeared him to sections of the public who see in him a rare example of a genuine individual where contemporary politics are concerned. In a way, it’s no real surprise that a populace in love with the cosy Neverland of ‘Downton Abbey’, where toffs are benevolent to the lower orders and forelock-tugging servants know their place, should take Boris to their hearts. And he’s no fool, despite his performance before the cameras; he knows this has been his key selling point from day one, and he’s determined to play the part all the way to No.10.

That Boris will now be sharing a platform with those other two professional political mavericks, Nigel Farage and George Galloway, is only fitting. All three have what the likes of George Osborne and Theresa May – the other two main front-runners with their eyes on Dave’s mantle – will never have. Osborne is detested by all but the most devoted Tory and May has the hectoring vocal whine of Mavis from ‘Coronation Street’; neither could be regarded as an odds-on floating vote-winner. Boris not only has the edge over them, but over the two rebels whose team he has joined. Put simply, the crucial difference between Bo-Jo and Farage and Galloway is that the Mayor can actually discern the reins of real power in his sights, a member of the governing party rather representing a minority fringe that can claim column inches and TV spotlights without turning that into sizeable votes.

Johnson’s election as London Mayor back in 2008 confirmed there was more to this man than the clumsy clown who became a household name after hosting ‘Have I Got News For You’ with such chaotic comedic panache. After initially surrendering his Parliamentary seat to run for the capital’s top job, his first move towards regaining a significant foothold within the Conservative Party came when he returned to Westminster in 2015. Despite sharing former membership of the notorious Bullingdon Club with Cameron and Osborne, Boris had a slightly wider education thereafter, working for both the Times and Telegraph before becoming editor of the Spectator for six years. His political career has contained enough scandals to ruin a lesser man, yet he seems to have emerged from both insulting Liverpudlians and engaging in extra-marital affairs a stronger character, his popularity undimmed by unfavourable headlines, which is no small achievement.

If a little forensic examination is applied to his record as London Mayor, it’s evident Johnson has exerted a paucity of good will towards the masses who voted him into office, preferring to cosy up to big business and enabling architects to take a bloody great scalpel to the London skyline with an absence of appreciation for the damage done to it by endless Towers of Babel. Yet, Johnson was re-elected Mayor in 2012, following his consistently high visibility during that summer’s London Olympics, and has regularly utilised his Wooster-ish charisma to his advantage, exploiting a wide-ranging popularity unparalleled amongst his Cabinet colleagues to ascend the next level of the greasy pole. What other politician could get away with quoting Latin in public and not be viewed as a pretentious prat?

Faced with a choice of, say, Michael Fallon or Boris being the star guest on ‘Newsnight’, how many members of the electorate would actively tune in for the first interview, other than those desperately seeking a cure for insomnia? By consciously developing a character in stark contrast with the never-ending parade of Parliamentary dullards spin-doctored within an inch of their lives for fear of putting a foot wrong and inadvertently revealing a flash of personality, Boris Johnson has successfully capitalised on a dearth of colour in Westminster and as a consequence is one of the most recognisable politicians in the country. He learned early on that by obscuring his ambition in affability and eccentricity, he could win over voters who would never warm to a cold fish like Iain Duncan Smith.

Whether the public’s fondness for Boris could be extended to electing him as their leader remains to be seen; but by allying himself with the prevailing anti-EU sentiments dominating discussions over the impending referendum, Bo-Jo has again demonstrated his talent for being in the right place at the right time. And I suspect he’ll do likewise when Dave eventually falls on his sword.

© The Editor

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THE EUROPEAN CANNON IS HERE

Cameron as ChurchillAre you bored yet? I was certainly heading that way last week, when I switched on ‘Newsnight’ and was confronted by the EU as the lead story every single evening. The EU, the EU, the bloody EU. Apparently, nothing else was going on in the world – or perhaps it was a means of arresting dwindling viewing figures for the programme by specialising on one subject five nights running as a canny gimmick. After a week in which David Cameron has done his best Jim Hacker, dashing from one European bigwig to another and emerging before the cameras declaring he’s won a groundbreaking deal for Britain that nobody but him seems to understand, the PM has finally announced the long-overdue date of D-Day, the date when the Great British public have their first opportunity to decide on their European fate since 1975.

Funnily enough, I was bored with it then as well. Okay, I was only seven at the time and I had no interest in the EEC Referendum; I wasn’t Jacob Rees-Mogg. There’d already been two General Elections in the previous 16 months, and I probably thought it was another one of those going on. As long as it came free with a day off school again, that was fine by me. Forty-one years later, I’m not at school anymore (be pretty weird if I was), but my interest in the issue is ironically coloured by similar symptoms to those that characterised my reaction in 1975 – a basic absence of understanding as to the facts. We seem to be awash in a sea of misinformation generated by the two opposing viewpoints, so vehemently opposed that they are attempting to outdo each other in bombarding us with scaremongering.

If we leave the EU, our economy will suffer, companies investing in our workforce will withdraw and the unemployment figures will soar; if we remain in the EU, we will be in a stronger position than ever thanks to Dave’s negotiations and will be in charge of our own destiny as well as benefitting from greater cooperation with our European partners.

If we leave the EU, we will be free to trade with America and the Commonwealth, as well as trading with European nations, without any potential profits being limited by ridiculous directives from bloody Brussels; if we remain in the EU, our elected representatives will continue to have their hands tied by rules and regulations none of us signed up to, hampering the chance of further economic recovery and flooding the country with more immigrants.

There’s already a distinct whiff of testosterone wafting from the respective podiums, less than 24 hours after Cameron fired the opening salvo of the four-month marathon. Farage and Galloway are flexing their muscles, fresh from their one-trick pony gyms and sharing some onstage man-love. The UKIP leader has been waiting for this moment all of his political life; it’s his sole raison d’être; it’s the reason he does what he does – whatever it is the leader of a political party without a seat in Parliament actually does do. This is his one opportunity to grab Olympic Gold. As the manager of a League One team playing a Premier League giant in the FA Cup Quarter Finals would say, this is Farage’s cup final. If he blows it, he’s history. Side-by-side with Gorgeous George, Farage is now in tandem with a man he has more in common with than their ideological differences suggest. Both are classic mavericks and appeal to those sick of the slick Westminster Mafia, both are loved and loathed in equal measure; the fact that this issue has united them has echoes of 1975, when the then-‘out’ campaign contained the likes of both Tony Benn and Enoch Powell.

Also reminiscent of 1975 is that Cameron has decided to follow in Harold Wilson’s footsteps by dispensing with collective responsibility within the Cabinet. Everyone is waiting to hear which way Boris will go, whereas Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling were quick to nail their colours to the ‘out’ mast. Less predictably, Michael Gove has thrown his lot in with the rebels as well. Which Brexit group he’ll ally himself with is less simple, as the ‘out’ campaign appears a tad disorganised at the moment, with more than one group jostling for official recognition as the genuine article – a bit like the IRA, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, sort of. The ‘in’ group appear more choreographed, but the prospect of Cameron and Corbyn both advocating essentially the same message is a strange one. Peter Mandelson allying himself with George Osborne makes it easy for critics to label the Dark Lord a closet Tory again, but Jeremy Corbyn?

I think this referendum is going to be a hard sell to the British public, which is probably why the PM has announced the date four months in advance, further in advance than he would with a General Election. He’s got a job on his hands to convince every ‘don’t know’ that this is something that matters to them as much as it matters to him – though his reasons are heavily influenced by the need to ensure his ‘legacy’; after all, he narrowly avoided becoming the Prime Minister who presided over the breakup of the United Kingdom when the Scottish Independence Referendum result came through. He could do with what he regards as another tick against his name. Yes, there are those out there for whom the mere mention of Europe induces the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth, manic mortification most imagine only exists in Daily Mail editorials; but the majority of people in this country have far more pressing concerns, ones that four months of relentless exchanges of fire between the two interested parties across the media won’t make seem any less pressing.

Get ready. We’re in for a long ride. When’s the new series of ‘Poldark’ start, by the way?

© The Editor

THE ENTERPRISE COMPLIANCE SCHEME

UntitledThe historic ruling by the UK Supreme Court that the notorious Joint Enterprise or Common Purpose law has been misinterpreted by the legal profession over the past thirty years rightly hit the headlines this week. Few laws in this country have caused as much controversy in the last decade or so, responsible for putting many behind bars who didn’t actually commit a crime but were present when the crime was committed and were regarded as being as crucial to its execution as the perpetrator. The law has been used mainly in murder cases, when a gang (or just two) has rounded on an individual, leading to a fatal blow administered by one member of the gang; rather than the guilty party receiving the appropriate sentence (if he or she could be identified), everyone at the scene has been found similarly guilty, not of mere manslaughter, but murder by virtue of foresight that murder would be the outcome of the confrontation. Application of the law has been a convenient weapon for police in dealing with gang crime, though the miscarriages of justice it must take the blame for would need some considerable wading through.

The law has rather eccentric roots, dating originally from a cart race between two coves in the mid-nineteenth century; a pedestrian was knocked down and killed, but nobody seemed to know which of the two drivers had caused the fatal accident. Therefore, both were held jointly responsible for the death. The law’s most infamous application in the twentieth century was in the case of Derek Bentley, when the mentally-handicapped teenager was hanged after his friend Christopher Craig shot dead a police officer during a bungled robbery in 1953. Bentley’s ‘let him have it, Chris’ was not perceived by the jury as a request for Craig to hand the gun to the policeman, but an order to fire it at him. As Craig – the actual murderer – was under 16, he couldn’t be charged with the crime and Bentley received the full force of the law, not being given a long-overdue pardon until 1998.

It was rarely evoked as a legal option up until the 1980s, but a gang murder in Hong Kong fell into the lap of the Privy Council’s judicial committee in 1980, when that body was still the final court of appeal for crown colonies; Joint Enterprise was evoked anew as a means of resolving a complex situation that nevertheless took four years to reach a decision on, the committee eventually finding all gang members as complicit in the murder as the murderer himself. The Law Lords, once the highest ranking judges in the land, took the Privy Council verdict as a guideline for the use of Joint Enterprise in the mother country. Following the Chang-Wing Siu ruling, the increase in gang crime on home soil then saw Joint Enterprise revived as a canny method of putting an entire gang behind bars when only one of them had committed a murder. As the 80s morphed into the 90s, the law began to be utilised more in the case of youth crime; and it is primarily young men who are the victims of Joint Enterprise. Had Anthony Burgess used it in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, all of the droogs would have been sentenced for the murder of the lady at the health farm that landed Alex in prison.

One of the most high-profile murders of recent years – that of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 – took a rather convoluted route when suspects were initially rounded-up without conviction and became something of a political football kicked around for years until Joint Enterprise came to the rescue and David Norris and Gary Dobson were both sentenced for the murder in 2012. The law was also used to convict second, third and (in some cases) fourth and fifth parties in further murder cases guaranteed to generate excessive tabloid headlines, such as that of Garry Newlove in 2007, Shakilus Townsend in 2008, and Zac Olumegbon in 2010. This seemed destined to carry on indefinitely, with the gruesome nature of the respective crimes deemed awful enough to warrant heavy sentencing for those who were privy to them, whether or not blood was on their hands. It sometimes feels these days that the worse the crime, the more justification there is for riding roughshod over legal liberties. As long as someone is wheeled on to be hung, drawn and quartered – regardless of their innocence or guilt – that will suffice.

It increasingly began to appear that lazy usage of Joint Enterprise didn’t seem that different from the tactics of the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad in the 1970s, when the horrific mainland bombings by the IRA in 1974 demanded instant guilty parties to be displayed before the media; the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four are testament to the need for someone to carry the can for a horrendous crime, regardless of whether they actually committed it. The injustices of Joint Enterprise were highlighted for a mass audience who in all likelihood were largely unaware of it via Jimmy McGovern’s powerful 2014 TV play, ‘Common’, which presented a fictitious portrayal of an archetypal case. Around the same time, a campaign group seeking to reform the law, JENGbA (Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association) was founded to further alert the public to the injustices Joint Enterprise was causing.

Despite the groundbreaking ruling by the Supreme Court, however, we have been warned not to expect a rush of successful fresh appeals by those convicted under Joint Enterprise. It seems the ruling will only really affect future cases rather than those already heard in a court of law. It has not been retrospectively applied and it has not been excised from the legal bible. But the judiciary has belatedly admitted it got something wrong; and that in itself is cause for celebration, whatever happens next.

© The Editor

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