SIT ON MY FAITH

Tim Farron or a fish finger? According to various online polls, most reckon the latter would make a more effective leader of the Liberal Democrats. Okay, so it’s one of those Twitter campaigns that serve as a silly distraction from doom ‘n’ gloom, and to give Farron credit he has entered into the spirit of the joke rather than pretending he knows nothing about it. Anyway, a fish finger couldn’t have been elected Lib Dem leader after the last General Election on account of just eight remaining MPs to choose from (with Nick Clegg excluded from the list), none of whom owed their existence to Captain Birdseye.

Farron was a regular on ‘Question Time’ prior to his leadership elevation, so was a relatively familiar face; but the dearth of names to select as Clegg’s successor meant it was inevitable whoever got the gig was destined to have their election downgraded. In some respects, Farron has made a shrewd move in allying himself and his party with the anti-Brexit brigade; after being blamed for the worst crimes of the Coalition, the Lib Dems needed a new focus and seized upon the Referendum result as a cause. It could well have won them recruits too young to recall their U-turn on tuition fees as well as disillusioned Remainers, and with Labour’s stance on the subject still somewhat murky, Farron has promoted the Lib Dems as a party whose position on the issue that will undoubtedly dominate this General Election is crystal clear.

Not that Brexit is the issue Tim Farron has been quizzed on much so far when cornered by interviewers. They want to know if he thinks gay sex is a sin. He’s a Christian, you see, so surely an act of passion between two chaps must offend his faith, no? I wonder if anyone has dared to put the same question to, say, Sadiq Khan. The Mayor of London is a Muslim, after all, and the Koran apparently isn’t mad keen on that sort of intimacy. Mind you, is any religious manual penned thousands of years ago mad keen on it? The core values of any religion seem similar on paper, but the ambiguity of the text in all of them can be open to interpretation and seized upon by both advocates and opponents as to why living one’s life by its doctrines is either a good or bad idea.

There can be ‘selective faith’, of course, which essentially means a pick ‘n’ mix of all the bits in one’s chosen Holy Book which appeal and conveniently disregarding the bits you don’t like. I suppose it makes sense to a degree if you’re determined to follow a faith and the archaic nature of some of its specifications makes them no longer relevant. Islamic Fundamentalists tend to do this the wrong way round by focusing on all the bits most would regard as utterly irrelevant to the world after around the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Similarly, Christian Fundamentalists in the American Bible Belt have a habit of honing in on all those bits as well. But that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone who is a Muslim or a Christian follows suit.

Our Glorious Leader herself is, as we all know, the daughter of a vicar and she remains a practising Christian; will the gay sex question be put to her during the campaign? Robert Peston hinted as much when appearing on this week’s ‘Have I Got News for You’, so we shall see. That Farron has been singled out more than other prominent God-botherers for his views on personal morality seems strange; his voting record on equality legislation is largely commendable, more so than many of his fellow Parliamentarians who have been spared the kind of grilling Farron has received of late. Then again, I suppose the media needs an angle, and today’s media-savvy politicians should at least anticipate it.

Thankfully, none in 2017 (bar perhaps the worst fruitcake in the UKIP bakery) would come out with a comment akin to the one uttered by the late Tory buffoon Sir Gerald Nabarro on ‘Any Questions’ way back in 1963 – ‘How would you feel if your daughter wanted to marry a big buck nigger with the prospect of coffee-coloured grandchildren?’ Even at the time, the comment was deemed unpleasant enough to be edited out of the programme’s repeat broadcast a few days later, though it didn’t damage Nabarro’s career thereafter as it would totally destroy it today.

However, the voluntary imposition of a morality consensus upon all public figures isn’t necessarily a hallmark of progress in that some may well say one thing in public and another in private. I’ve no idea if Tim Farron regards gay sex as abhorrent when he ponders on the topic behind closed doors or if he wrestles with his Christian conscience over the issue; but the likelihood that some have both a public and a private opinion on such a subject is, I would imagine, fairly high. In a way, I would rather honesty came into it a little more, though the awareness of how the wrong kind of honesty can wreck a career today no doubt limits a public figure’s ability to express it.

Actually, an out-and-out proud bigot or racist is more honest than someone who masks their prejudices in the mores of the moment – the kind of PC preacher who ticks all the right minority boxes until their daughter engages in the scenario clumsily referred to by Sir Gerald Nabarro over fifty years ago. The dishonesty of those who don’t necessarily practice in private what they preach in public is worse. The reluctance to question and condemn certain cultural differences – FGM being an extreme example and one with an appalling lack of criminal convictions for its practitioners – isn’t helping anyone, let alone the concept of a harmonious society that lives by certain shared values.

For all the rights and wrongs of the Raj, the British in India did at least outlaw traditions like widows being burned alive on their dead husband’s funeral pyres; and to avoid ‘sensitive issues’ today because they’re exclusive to minorities whilst simultaneously thinking it okay to constantly challenge Tim Farron on one topic because he’s a white heterosexual Brit following what David Cameron reminded us was ‘the national faith’ stinks of double standards.

© The Editor

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THE BASH STREET KING

Unless you’re in the know, chances are the name Leo Baxendale means nothing to you. However, if you’re over at least 30, you’ll be more than familiar with the characters this unsung National Treasure gave us – The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, and Grimly Feendish, to name a few. It’s been announced that Baxendale has died at the age of 86 and – subsequent innovators such as Alan Moore and the ‘2000AD’ generation aside – it’s hard to think of anyone who revolutionised British comics more than this remarkably gifted draughtsman from Preston.

Beginning before the Second World War, both The Dandy and The Beano were firmly part of the British cultural furniture by the time Baxendale became a regular contributor to the latter in 1952. The introduction of Dennis the Menace the year before had given Britain’s schoolboys a new anti-hero that enabled them to live out their revenge fantasies on authority figures such as parents and teachers by proxy. Tapping into this new spirit of cartoon anarchy that served to inject some much-needed colour into monochrome Austerity Britain for anyone under the age of around 13, Baxendale added to the list of naughty schoolboys with an entire class of them, The Bash Street Kids.

With Desperate Dan the cowboy star of The Dandy, Baxendale decided to showcase the other side for The Beano by creating Red Indian character Little Plum as well as The Three Bears. Both strips ran for over thirty years, long after their creator had left the comic, whereas The Bash Street Kids continue to run riot in their preserved 50s playground to this very day, as does the other character whose creation he will forever be associated with, Minnie the Minx.

Clearly a female equivalent of Dennis the Menace, Baxendale’s tomboy (first appearing in 1953) even wore the same red-and-black hooped jersey Dennis had virtually trademarked. However, whilst her male counterpart can be placed in a long tradition of unruly little boys such as William Brown (AKA ‘Just William’), there were few precedents in either literature or comics for Minnie. Yes, there were the wild pupils of St Trinian’s, though they were posh girls at a boarding school; Minnie was a working-class heroine when the idea of a girl from ‘the lower orders’ being as mischievous and badly-behaved as a boy was very much frowned upon. She instantly provided female readers with their own role model that parents were destined to disapprove of; the fact she also happened to be ginger gave hope to redheads everywhere. Like Dennis, her wicked deeds may have ended with the obligatory slipper on the backside, but readers at the time were aware that’s how all wicked deeds concluded, so her ultimate failure didn’t matter; what mattered was that she had the guts to have a go.

Dundee-based DC Thomson, publishers of The Dandy and The Beano as well as a host of other popular titles, were notoriously reluctant to give credit to the artists illuminating the pages of their publications; the serf-like approach they had to the men whose creations and artwork sold millions of copies (in 1950, the weekly circulation of The Beano alone was estimated at 1,974,072) irked Baxendale and he left the company after a decade in 1962, moving to DC Thomson rivals Odhams Press. Whilst there, he helped create Wham!, a gloriously insane comic that allowed his vivid imagination to run riot and one that introduced one of his most memorable creations, Grimly Feendish.

If you’ve ever seen the animated movie ‘Despicable Me’, the influence of Feendish is unmistakable. A fat bald villain clad in black, Feendish’s army for achieving world domination included bats, spiders and various fictitious creatures that made him a cult horror figure so potent to 60s children that when some of them grew up and formed The Damned, they even wrote a hit single about him. Unfortunately, the high production cost of Wham! and its sister titles pushed Odhams into financial difficulties and the company was absorbed into IPC, whose titles showcased most of Baxendale’s new work in the 70s as well as introducing that decade’s comic readership (myself included) to the likes of Grimly Feendish.

Still smarting from his treatment by DC Thomson and the fact that the strips he created remained amongst the most popular in the company’s comic stable, Baxendale took the company to court in the 80s in order to gain the rights to his creations. This legal battle spanned seven years, eventually settled out of court with an arrangement that apparently suited both parties. The fact that Baxendale was prepared to take on the authority of Thomson seemed to echo the attitude of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids towards their own authority figures, perhaps showing there was more than a touch of the creations in the creator.

Whereas the 1960s may have opened the door to irreverence that in turn heralded the death of deference, without the foundations laid in the previous decade we wouldn’t have had ‘Beyond the Fringe’ or John Lennon asking the people in the expensive seats at the Royal Variety Performance to rattle their jewellery. Whilst the likes of Spike Milligan and The Goons are rightly recognised as hugely significant pioneers in helping to manufacture this atmosphere, credit is also due to the men whose madcap characters enlivened the comics read by kids who went on to play their own part in the 60s cultural revolution.

Leo Baxendale stands at the head of these neglected innovators; that it’s still possible to follow the adventures of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids in the twenty-first century is testament to their enduring appeal and to the man who made them. RIP.

© The Editor

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POLL TO POLL

A Government in power for over half-a-decade with a 12.4% lead over the opposition in the opinion polls; everyone expects the Government to win the upcoming General Election and plans are already afoot within his own party to replace the opposition leader once the anticipated defeat occurs. With such a comfortable lead for the Government, the result seems a foregone conclusion as pollsters’ predictions are taken for granted. But this is 1970 and Harold Wilson’s six-year tenure as Prime Minister is poised to come to a surprise end. The pollsters got it wrong, as did the Conservative Party inner circle, not to mention the Labour-voting electorate, whose complacency convinced them their man would be back anyway and therefore wouldn’t necessarily require their vote if they couldn’t be bothered.

I only exhume this historical event from their archives due to the latest forecast of Labour’s expected annihilation at the 2017 ballot-box just over a month from now. When polls suggest the Tories could end up with as outrageous a majority as 150, the sense of the job being done before the current Parliament has even been dissolved is bound to affect the electorate to a certain degree. Some Tory voters may figure their vote isn’t essential when their party will win anyway, whereas some Labour voters may figure there’s little point in voting when it’s evident their party will be obliterated. Moreover, UKIP and Lib Dem voters may also feel their vote won’t count when Theresa May is guaranteed to remain PM.

After the last General Election, when the polls were way off the mark in their predictions, there is no longer the faith in polls that there perhaps was in the run-up to previous General Elections; but persistent exposure to them via the media does still impact on thought processes before voting. Wales has now been earmarked as the 2017 equivalent of Scotland in terms of Labour disasters, with the Tories predicted to take more seats there than at any time since their main opponents in the valleys were the Whigs; some claims estimate they could win as many as 21.

Following the moderate revival of Conservatism north of the border – seemingly offering the only alternative to the SNP – the Tories are also confident they can regain some of the ground there that they lost back in 1997. Latest polls put Conservative support in Scotland at 33%, enough to give them 12 seats. 10 of those seats would have to be won from the SNP, whereas in England and Wales the Tories are now predicted to capitalise on the fall in UKIP support as well as taking 65 seats from Labour. If, as these polls suggest, the Government will end the General Election with around a horrific 400 seats, what is the point even bothering to vote? It’s a done deal, isn’t it?

Yes, Labour won a record-breaking 418 seats in 1997; but that victory came on the back of the Tories being in power for 18 years, with John Major’s popularity as low as the standing of the various prominent members of his Cabinet who had been embroiled in ‘sleaze’. Today, the Conservatives have effectively been in charge for seven years (give or take the odd Lib Dem), and though the problems facing the country now are far more substantial than they were twenty years ago, a change of leader last summer and a clear-out of the Cameroons from the Cabinet has helped distance Theresa May and her chosen few from some of the damage done by the previous administration. Equally, the fact that Jeremy Corbyn can’t even count on the support of half of his MPs doesn’t exactly fill the electorate with confidence in his ability to lead the country.

On paper, many of Corbyn’s policy proposals are ones few would argue with; there is a vast disparity between the haves and the have-not’s that has gone unaddressed by Government for a long time, and Jezza is eager to finally address it; but Corbyn as a leader just doesn’t convince beyond those within the Labour Party who put him where he is – twice. I’ll concede there is an argument that the disproportionate left-right balance within the press doesn’t help his cause, but then I don’t think he and the people he’s gathered around him help it either. Unfortunately, being a media salesman for one’s policies is part of the process in this day and age, and – for all his innumerable faults – Blair was a salesman par excellence; he sold his product to Labour and Tory alike in 1997 with the aid of a hungry team behind him whose decades in the wilderness had given them a ravenous appetite for power.

By contrast, Jezza’s raggle-taggle band of YTS MPs, old lags like Abbott and Thornberry, and mediocrities like Starmer have been cobbled together because many of the more prominent Labour MPs won’t countenance working alongside him – a disastrous scenario for the party that both sides are to blame for. Intransigence might make for a principled politician in terms of one prepared to resign their post on the strength of their beliefs, but when it comes to two wings of the same party it’s not really a recipe for electoral victory.

In 1970, the most notable absentee from Ted Heath’s newly-formed Government was Enoch Powell, arguably the most popular MP in the country at the time but one whose controversial standing on certain issues kept him out of the Cabinet. Some even attributed the unexpected Tory triumph to Powell’s popularity; yet if one were to look at Labour’s prospects in 2017 from a similar perspective, there may be plenty of figures outside of Corbyn’s cabal who wouldn’t get a look in even if Corbyn won, but none of them can command the level of support or influence Powell could; and none could hand Corbyn victory even if they didn’t view doing so as damaging to their own chances of eventually leading the party.

The paucity of talent in Corbyn’s team is evident, but it’s not as though the notable Labour MPs barred from it inspire much optimism either. Most have carved out a sideline career as omnipresent Labour representatives on the likes of ‘Question Time’, ‘Newsnight’ or ‘The Daily Politics’, but none have what it takes to be a viable successor to Jezza, let alone one who could return the party to power. The omens aren’t great for any sort of alternative to the policies Theresa May and her Government will continue to pursue; and however much she may differ from her predecessor, the general approach is unchanged. For those who don’t comfortably slot into any of the demographics earmarked as important by the Tories, things can only get worse.

© The Editor

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LOOK AWAY NOW

There’s a news report by the late ITN reporter Michael Nicholson from the 1967/70 Biafran War in which an enemy is captured by Nigerian Government forces and then shot dead on camera as a brutal demonstration of the army’s authority. Nicholson himself retrospectively reflected that the whole ugly spectacle was set up to ‘impress’ him and the western media, but it was hardly unique in an era when television news viewed itself as a vehicle for showing the world as it really was, warts and all. Around the same time, there was the even more infamous clip in a similar vein from Vietnam in which a bound prisoner is approached by a military man and is promptly shot point-blank in the temple; the blood gushes from the side of his head as his instantly limp body collapses to the ground, a gruesome fountain that was replayed on TV news around the globe.

Both these notorious examples of reportage from the frontline of ongoing conflicts belong to a less squeamish age that is now almost inconceivable to imagine being beamed into the nation’s living rooms. Were TV news today to exhibit the same kind of content as it did forty, fifty years ago, each bulletin would require an announcement beforehand of the sort that now even accompanies bloody ‘Coronation Street’ on occasion.

As a child, I was often more anxious when the news began that I would be if a horror film was about to be screened. One might presume the 1970s was somehow a more violent place than the 2010s if archive news broadcasts were used as a guide; in some respects, it was, though on a street level, if you like. The wider world was no more and no less violent than it is in 2017, but the violence wasn’t as remote – it was there in the playground and the classroom and it was there on the telly.

There was probably a greater awareness of violence then thanks to the less censorious approach of our broadcasters. If one thinks of the world’s trouble-spots forty-five years ago – Rhodesia, Vietnam, Uganda, Northern Ireland – the violence there was graphically portrayed on television because the viewpoint appeared to be that to not show it would simply reduce TV news to radio news. This could have been a natural progression from what radio had done during the Second World War, when listeners were dependent upon their imaginations to visualise the horrors of Belsen as so memorably described by Richard Dimbleby when the camp was liberated by Allied forces. TV news enabled the sights to be seen, however horrible. It was deemed a necessary evil if the public were to understand the unpleasant realities of war and its aftermath.

There appeared to be a conscious sea-change in television at some point in the 1990s – disturbing footage from the Gulf War that depicted the charred corpses of soldiers only appeared after the war was won, for example. The official demarcation line of the 9.00 watershed was extended when it came to conflict so that even post-watershed news bulletins avoided anything that might give their viewers nightmares. As late as 1982, the piles of bodies in the horrific massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon were shown on the TV news; the thinking seemed to be that these needed to be seen if the true appalling nature of the crime could be digested. Within a decade, it was difficult to envisage this kind of candid broadcasting.

The ‘don’t have nightmares’ catchphrase made famous by Nick Ross on ‘Crimewatch’ was taken up as an approach to television news from the 90s onwards, with the no-holds-barred presentation that had previously distinguished TV from radio abandoned in favour of an airbrushed picture of man’s inhumanity to man that meant nobody had to be exposed to it if they switched the news on. Of course, wall-to-wall massacres and murders are not something many would look forward to seeing, but by visually censoring the actual events being reported on, viewers are given a lopsided impression of such incidents that is akin to an adult placing their hands over a child’s eyes if a pair of tits appear in a movie the family is watching together. If something horrible has happened, the viewer should have the sense to know that tuning in to the news means they’re going to see it.

It’s possible the advent of the internet – where the curious can more or less see whatever they want to see – has influenced a greater degree of censorship on television. No severed heads sliced off by ISIS or the bodies of those ploughed down by the recent terrorist take on road-rage have been screened on TV news, but they can easily be located online; I’ve inadvertently stumbled upon the former myself. I didn’t necessarily want to see them, but seeing them did bring home the horror of their reality more than anything broadcast on television. Yet, crucially, the random selection of horrors online has no context in the way it would have on TV news, when the images would be framed within a report that their inclusion would justify. By refusing to countenance screening anything that might provoke nightmares, it feels as if the broadcasters are absolving themselves of any responsibility to the viewers, perhaps fearful of litigation.

Even streakers during prominent sports occasions are now swiftly mixed out of live broadcasts, with the commentator taking it upon himself to act as parent – ‘We’re sure the viewers at home don’t want to see that’ etc. I don’t necessarily want to watch a man’s member flopping about the touch-line of a football pitch, but the decision whether or not to watch should really be mine as an adult. In the 70s and 80s, broadcasters trusted viewers to make that decision and didn’t regard them as permanently offended virgin spinsters.

The ease with which so many take offence today and the aforementioned prospect of litigation could well have led us to this state of affairs re TV news; and for all the talk of news channels operating on a biased agenda that tells us what they want us to hear rather than giving us the whole story, it seems to me that this is most apparent in the censor’s scissors when it comes to anything unpleasant. They could always take a football results approach – ‘If you don’t want to see a severed head, look away now’ – but that won’t happen because John Craven’s pioneering bulletin was effectively the blueprint for the future we’re currently watching on the BBC, ITV and Sky. Don’t have nightmares.

© The Editor

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ENGLAND FOR THE ENGLISH

Yes, it’s the Patron Saint day that dare not speak its name today – apparently; though considering the paraphernalia that accompanies another Patron Saint day within these islands, the casual observer might be forgiven for assuming St Patrick’s Day is the only one the English celebrate. As London Mayor, Ken Livingstone plucked £100,000 out of the capital’s coffers to mark St Patrick’s Day in 2002 by dyeing the Trafalgar Square fountains green, though didn’t dye them red when St George’s Day came around. Then again, perhaps we should be thankful the majority of the population are so indifferent; the prospect of the kind of vapid state-sponsored jingoism that accompanies royal events being thrust upon us on an annual basis is enough to inspire gratitude for such small mercies.

The coincidence of Shakespeare’s birthday and the day he allegedly died both falling on St George’s Day is one of those suspicious acts of serendipity that is probably exploited for extra patriotic mileage by those that get carried away with that sort of thing; but St George’s Day was also the birthday of the late Phil Archer, fictitious member of a fictitious family in a fictitious corner of Albion known as Ambridge, and I would imagine that was no happy accident.

The problem with all these national occasions – and we have, after all, got four of ‘em in this neck of the European woods – is that their organisation and promotion is in the hands of the uninspired and unimaginative, so they’re invariably marked by falling back on every indigenous stereotype, which should really provoke at the very least an almighty wince. Boris Johnson has often called for St George’s Day to be a public holiday in England, though I suspect Bo-Jo’s idea of celebrating the event would be to scoff a roast beef dinner with a little Flag of St George stuck in his top hat, rounding off the feast with a toast to the Queen.

No more appealing is the other option, with a high-street parade of red-faced fat blokes akin to the ones who emerge whenever the England team are playing in the World Cup, all singing the national anthem in unison – ‘En-ger-land!’ As with New Year, the whole event is reduced to an excuse for a piss-up. Do we require an officially designated day that gives us permission to do so?

One could argue the tone of this post so far demonstrates the very cynicism with St George’s Day that has resulted in it being the least celebrated Patron Saint’s day in the British Isles; but it’s not as if I’m cynical towards the occasion because I carry liberal guilt over St George somehow symbolically representing our shameful colonial past and therefore seek the brotherhood of the Irish, Welsh and Scots who, as rewritten history will inform us, had no part to play whatsoever in the great imperial adventure. Again, it’s more a case of the way in which these events are handed down to us by the powers-that-be, like adults dishing out sweets to toddlers on the condition that they behave themselves in exchange for the treat.

Also, it depends where one stands on the existence of Patron Saints in the first place. St George has only occupied that position in England since the Reformation, a side-effect of the removal of the numerous images of Catholic Saints and their flags cluttering up churches. From then on, the one Saint would suffice and George was the one who got the job. In those days of religious fanaticism (unlike now, of course), these symbols mattered when each individual nation on this island defiantly clung to its own independent culture. The 1707 Union with Scotland saw separate nationalism gradually superseded by a collective nationalism as represented by the combined flag Great Britain now sailed under – in England, at least.

The late Victorian vogue for reviving – or, to be more accurate, re-imagining – Ye Olde England was manifested in the formation of druid chapters, the sudden interest in cataloguing traditional folk songs, Gothic architecture, the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and the 1894 founding of The Royal Society of St George. This organisation can boast past Presidents of the calibre of Rudyard Kipling, Field Marshal Montgomery and…er…the Duke of Windsor, as well as past Vice Presidents such as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher – Great Patriots all. Still in existence, it sees its function as primarily promoting traditional English values.

Question that function and no doubt the Daily Telegraph would willingly have you hung, drawn and quartered as a Communist; but for me humour, and specifically the ability to take the piss out of one’s more humourless countrymen and institutions, is as English a tradition as any I can think of. Cocking a snook at authority – that’s about as genuinely English as it gets.

There’s a distinct humourlessness in the English who vehemently oppose the existence of St George’s Day and happily drink themselves into a coma when the Patron Saints of Ireland and Scotland come around, just as there is in the English whose pompous and unswerving belief that any criticism of their official brand of what Englishness constitutes is tantamount to treason. For me personally, the best films about England and all of these traditions are the ones that satirise them, such as ‘The Ruling Class’, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘If…’ and even ‘A Clockwork Orange’. They belong to a tradition I actually do feel at home in. Because I’m English? Perhaps…

© The Editor

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UNE LECON D’HISTOIRE

Apparently, 2017 is the first year since 1924 that General Elections have taken place in all three of Europe’s economic powerhouses – that is France, Germany and…yes…us. Back then, Édouard Herriot and his left-wing Cartel des Gauches alliance claimed victory in the French Legislative Election, Otto Wels led Germany’s Social Democratic Party to victory in the German Federal Election, and over here it was Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives who triumphed over Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour Government. The instability of Europe in the aftermath of the Great War was perhaps emphasised by the fact it was the second time German voters had been summoned to the polling booth that year, whilst in the UK, it was just ten months on from the last General Election; by contrast, it had been five years for French voters. However, these historical facts somewhat obscure the tumultuous changes our nearest continental neighbours underwent from 1789 to 1958.

From the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, France experienced more than a century of chopping (literally) and changing at the top. After King Louis met his maker via Madame Guillotine, there followed a short-lived series of substitutions for the monarchy – the National Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly, the National Convention, and then the notorious Committee of Public Safety led by Robespierre, which was responsible for the infamous Terror; this was followed by the final Revolutionary Government, the Directory, which ended with Bonaparte’s seizure of power in a 1799 coup that resulted in the nation’s most successful general becoming First Consul.

Napoleon had crowned himself Emperor within five years of the coup and held onto power for another decade; Bonaparte’s abdication in 1814 led to a brief restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy via the corpulent Louis XVIII, brother of the executed XVI, who was temporarily usurped after Napoleon’s flight from exile in Elba. With Waterloo bringing to end the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Louis XVIII was back on the throne. He was succeeded by another Bourbon brother, Charles X, in 1824, though Charles was deposed during the July Revolution of 1830 and replaced by his cousin Louis Philippe. Louis himself was forced into exile during the 1848 Revolution, ironically following his predecessor to a safe haven across the Channel.

The Second Republic was proclaimed in the aftermath of 1848, with Bonaparte’s nephew first being elected President and then, when denied a second term, staging a coup that ended with him being crowned Emperor of the French (using the title Napoleon III). He reigned as Emperor for an impressive eighteen years, though his ambitions backfired during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71, an event which marked a significant change in Central Europe’s balance of power. Prussia’s victory was a key factor in the unification of Germany five years later, whereas for France it marked the end of the country’s role as Europe’s dominant nation. From a Prussian perspective, it also served as revenge for the first Bonaparte’s brutal dismemberment of the German states over half-a-century before.

The Third Republic was proclaimed as Napoleon III followed a familiar path of English exile (where he died in 1873, buried in Hampshire). Paris was ruled by the radical Paris Commune – a collective Karl Marx referred to as ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – after the country’s defeat and was under siege from the regular French Army for two months until normality reasserted itself and came to term with France’s humiliation at Germany’s hands. This incarnation of France survived until the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1940 and the formation of the puppet Vichy Government.

The Fourth Republic was formed after the Second World War, but collapsed during the Algerian War of Independence in 1958; from its ashes rose the Fifth Republic, which is still the political system France is governed by today. Its architect was the leader of the Free French Forces whilst in exile during WWII, Charles de Gaulle, who was elected President and held onto power until being rejected in a referendum in 1969; he died a year later. Since his successor, Georges Pompidou, France has experienced a relatively stable transference of power via the ballot box, yet arrives at yet another crossroads today with serving President François Hollande not seeking re-election.

Unlike both Germany and the UK (not to mention Spain and Italy), after the Algerian crisis of the late 50s and early 60s, France largely avoided terrorist assaults on its home soil from the 1970s onwards. The sudden bloody incursion of Radical Islam into French life over the last couple of years has come as something of a shock to the country, which had long regarded itself as a secular multicultural melting pot, despite the grassroots rise of the far-right under the National Front leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The shooting dead of a policeman in Paris by an alleged Islamist terrorist on the eve of the first round of this year’s Presidential Elections could have an understandable bearing on events this weekend, especially where the National Front are concerned. Marine Le Pen has given it a facelift since she engineered the expulsion of her father from the party, but she remains the underdog while Emmanuel Macron, himself something of an outsider from the mainstream, is the bookies’ favourite. As someone who welcomed the Brexit result, Le Pen advocates French withdrawal from the EU; considering France was a prime-mover in the foundation of the EEC, this attitude reflects French fears over the increasing stature of Germany in Central Europe. Old enmities with France’s domineering neighbour have resurfaced in recent years, something that hasn’t necessarily benefitted France in the past.

If this whistle-stop tour through post-Revolutionary France amounts to anything, it’s a demonstration that the kind of uncertainty being portrayed as unprecedented amongst our Gallic cousins is nothing new if one takes the long view. But who takes the long view these days?

© The Editor

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ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES

It’s fair to say they’re under starter’s orders now, though the General Election of 2017 won’t begin proper until Parliament is dissolved, reducing the time spent on the campaign trail – something that will evidently come as a relief to the disgruntled Bristol pensioner captured on camera the day the PM made her unexpected announcement. By its very nature, a snap General Election can catch parties, pundits and broadcasters alike unawares, but by the time we get to June 8 we’ll still probably be as wearied by the campaign as if it had been one plotted and planned years in advance. In a weird way, the sheer surprise of Tuesday’s lectern moment outside No.10 means the media coverage has been more extensive than if we’d had the slow build-up to 2020 as politicos cream their collective jeans at the prospect of their own version of the Olympics coming three years early.

Theresa May’s decision has led to panic stations on several fronts, not least amongst her own party branches out in the Shires; apparently, numerous Labour seats the Tories had firmly in their sights for 2020 haven’t even had candidates selected yet. With only a few trusted insiders being privy to the Prime Minister’s intentions before the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, the luxury of time that the party machine imagined it had to pick the right people for the right constituency has been thrown into disarray as Westminster wannabes suddenly scramble for selection in the nation’s ugliest beauty contest.

The most acute difficulty facing Labour in the wake of the PM’s decision is working out the best way to hold onto seats in their northern heartlands that went against the official Labour stance on the EU Referendum and voted Brexit. This conundrum may provide UKIP with opportunistic hope, but speaks volumes as to the depth of detachment between Corbyn’s London-centric Labour and Labour voters outside of the capital. Given another three years, the party could perhaps have come up with a solution; confronted by less than two months, it seems an unenviable task.

Jezza has already pitched himself as the establishment outsider; it worked for Donald Trump and may well work for Marine le Pen, but though Jeremy Corbyn has always been an outsider, his career comfort zone has been firmly on the far left of Labour, which has never received mass acceptance from the electorate. The two most successful post-Attlee Labour leaders – Harold Wilson and Tony Blair – succeeded by either shrewdly holding the opposing wings of the party together through crafty wheeler-dealing (Wilson) or abandoning core party principles by going for the jugular of the Tory Middle England vote (Blair); Corbyn appears incapable of trying (and unwilling to try) either approach, which limits his appeal beyond his fanatical fan-base.

Theresa May’s befuddled reasons for calling a snap Election included airing her odd opinion that opposition to her ideas was somehow a treasonable offence; she needs to remember she’s not Kim Jong Un. On the other hand, the likes of oily Umunna on Twitter suggesting that sending the nation to the polls was somehow anti-democratic makes one hope such a clueless bell-end doesn’t throw his hat in the ring come the day when Jezza’s reign finally ends. What this seems to indicate is, that for all the talk of ‘the new politics’, tribal enmities have resurfaced already; May’s allergic reaction to an opposition having the audacity to question her authority and the rabid ‘Tory Scum’ rants on social media simply say it’s as you were.

The return of veteran Lib Dem stalwarts such as Old Mother Cable and Simon Hughes, casualties of the 2015 massacre and now hoping for a speedy return to Parliament, demonstrates the newfound confidence of the party whose electoral fortunes simply couldn’t get any worse. But Farron the Fish-Finger’s problem with traditional Liberal heartlands lost to the Tories last time round isn’t dissimilar to the situation facing Labour in their heartlands; many voted to Leave last June, whereas the Lib Dem leader has positioned his party on an anti-Brexit platform. The Lib Dems may capture seats in university towns as a consequence (if 2010’s tuition fees fiasco can be quietly swept under the carpet), but the west-country could be a different proposition.

Theresa May’s aversion to appearing in televised leader’s debates (which a British General Election somehow managed to get by without until 2010) could be seen as a mark of her reluctance to expose her limitations before a nationwide audience, though the lengthy arranging such programmes require means we might be deprived of an excess of them, anyway. The one-off experiment of 2010, when viewers were presented with the sensible line-up of three rather than the overcrowded stage of 2015, clearly benefitted the underdog, i.e. Nick Clegg. David Cameron baulked at the same concept two years ago, perhaps feeling that being limited to a couple of minutes per question when surrounded by six opponents might enable him to avoid putting his foot in it.

Sharing a platform with two party leaders – Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon – who wouldn’t even be in Westminster if elected, and two others – Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett – who weren’t even MPs at the time (and still aren’t) was an odd and novel scenario that Cameron rightly figured would prevent him being too exposed in a way he could well have been if facing just Clegg and Miliband. But Theresa May won’t even submit to a seven-way debate. She does seem strangely averse to the limelight for a PM and one wonders how she can get her message across to the floating voter by avoiding the most obvious means of doing so now it has become established as part of the process.

The Tories have received a boost by the news that the universally unloved Gideon will be standing down, though the Labour cause probably won’t be helped by the loss of several MPs whose appeal wasn’t restricted to the cult of Corbyn; but at least the next six weeks still promise the usual car-crash moments a campaign wouldn’t be the same without, even if the end scene appears preordained.

© The Editor

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THE PRESUMPTION OF GUILT

‘It was one of those immensely rare and exceptional cases where the decision to prosecute and thereafter to continue the prosecution was an unnecessary or improper act.’ So spoke His Honour Judge Martin Edmunds in his official verdict of a case he tried in which a jury cleared a deputy headmaster of raping a 14-year-old female pupil; he came to his conclusion in a written costs ruling that was published in last weekend’s Mail on Sunday. It’s hard to read the passage quoted without wondering where Judge Edmunds has been lately. ‘Immensely rare and exceptional’? Really? With an estimated half of cases brought before Crown Courts in England and Wales today being ‘sex cases’, the case His Honour commented upon seems a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the legal system and the insidious organisation spearheading its abuse known as the Crown Prosecution Service.

If just one case was to be selected as representative of the corruption of the Law and the way in which it is enacted today, the sad story of Kato Harris appears to have it all. And at the dark heart of this sorry saga that left the career and reputation of an innocent man in tatters are (yet again) the toxic twins responsible for a growing trail of injustice and misery that has served to obliterate any lingering shreds of faith in this country’s upholders of fair play – the CPS and the Metropolitan Police Force.

The 35-year-old deputy head of the fee-paying St George’s School in Ascot, Kato Harris was regarded as an inspirational teacher and a popular one; however, his rapid rise through the ranks ground to a horrific halt when a girl he’d never even taught at his previous school accused him of raping her on three separate occasions. Adhering to the ‘she who must be believed’ edict issued to all police forces where sexual offence accusations are concerned, the boys in blue demonstrated their noted subtlety by turning up at Mr Harris’ school and bundling him away in full view of bemused pupils.

What followed over the next year-and-a-half was a nightmarish ordeal for Kato Harris familiar to hundreds of men in this country who have been at the mercy of a legal system that has overturned the ‘innocent till proven guilty’ foundation stone upon which English Law was built. Never imagining he’d actually be charged, the moment he was, Mr Harris’ world collapsed. Suspended from work, barred from his local church and cricket team, publicly named and shamed whilst his accuser enjoyed the luxury of anonymity, Kato Harris became an overnight outcast in the community he had been a prominent member of.

According to a teacher at her school, Mr Harris’ accuser (whose parents used to fly her to New York for weekly therapy) was engaged in a competition with a friend as to who could concoct the most audacious story, and it would seem the name of Kato Harris was plucked out of thin air with the nonchalance of a retired footballer extracting balls from the bag during the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup. What gave her story clout, despite the inaccuracies in her flimsy evidence, were the deep pockets of her parents, who hired Sue Akers, ex-Deputy Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard and now working as a private detective. She was recruited via a legal firm known as Mishcon de Reya, along with her partner-in-crime Alison Levitt, who just happened to be a former legal adviser to the CPS.

Sue Akers played her part in the CPS’s decision to prosecute by renewing old contacts at the Met, supplying Scotland Yard detectives with a list of tasks that could secure a conviction. Working in tandem with Levitt, she recommended they contact all of Mr Harris’ former pupils and that they seize his computer for incriminating evidence (none was found); the relentless pressure from Akers and Levitt even annoyed senior detectives working on the case who were well aware of the gaping holes in the accuser’s tall tale; but they carried on lobbying.

When bombarding the CPS and Met with emails, Alison Levitt tellingly stooped to one including a statement from personality-free Labour MP Keir Starmer, her former mentor, who highlighted Levitt’s ‘findings’ in the DPP report into Jimmy Savile. If ever proof were needed to underline Ms Levitt’s chilling agenda, this email had it in spades. Yet, still the case went to trial.

Kato Harris was cleared of the charges by a jury in the space of fifteen minutes. Despite this, St George’s School declined to resume his employment there. He is currently unemployed and is understandably reluctant to return to teaching in any capacity; why would any man even enter the profession anymore? Judge Edmunds ruled that the CPS decision to prosecute was an ‘improper act’ and that they should now pay Mr Harris’ legal fees, though they have offered a paltry amount so far. The Met, meanwhile, claim that an independent review of their actions by the Greater Manchester Police said no evidence was found that the accuser’s representatives ‘were inappropriately given any physical access to information concerning the investigation’.

An innocent man on the scrapheap, branded for life and unwilling to re-enter the profession he was apparently extremely good at; a narcissistic fantasist endorsed by wealthy parents and a despicable law firm; legal reforms that encourage such malicious vendettas; the CPS and the Met once more joining forces on an immoral crusade to appease victims lobbyists without a care for those trampled underfoot – none of these factors are unique in 2017.

Kato Harris may not feel it, but he is a lucky man. He’s not behind bars for something he didn’t do. In the current climate, that in itself is a triumph. The easiest way to ruin anyone today is to simply point the finger and shout ‘Paedo!’ Job done.

© The Editor

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SNAP!

I confess I did wonder; when news broke this morning that Theresa May was going to make ‘an announcement’ without any prior warning of the announcement’s contents (a highly unusual step), the thought crossed my mind that the PM might be calling a snap General Election, despite repeated denials she would contradict the Fixed Parliaments Act and send the nation to the polls before the set date of 2020. Lo and behold, Mrs May’s ‘lectern moment’ outside No.10 did indeed confirm these suspicions. Bar the technical necessity of asking Parliament’s permission tomorrow, a General Election has been called for 8 June.

Prime Ministers rarely call an Election when their term in office still has plenty of time to run; John Major, probably convinced he’d lose in 1997, left it until the last minute; Gordon Brown did likewise in 2010. Whereas an Election every four years had been established as the norm, both men chose to push their administrations to the five-year limit, desperate to cling on to power in the anticipation of defeat. Since 2010, of course, five years has now been enshrined in law and Theresa May seemed set to adhere to this rule. But, lest we forget, she inherited a mandate from her predecessor, who walked the plank barely a year after winning outright; she also inherited his far-from impressive majority. Hanging on for another three years appeared a bit silly, especially when current polls have the Tories fifteen-twenty points ahead of Labour. Why not go for it?

Of course, these are not ‘normal’ times and this will inevitably be seen as ‘the Brexit General Election’, but this has been a remarkable few years for the electorate – 2014: The Scottish Independence Referendum; 2015: The General Election; 2016: The EU Referendum; and now, 2017: The General Election. With the SNP demanding another independence referendum, Northern Ireland’s Executive in disarray, and Article 50 having just been triggered amidst ongoing Brexit divisions, I suppose the only comparable scenario in living memory that springs to mind is the similarly uncertain era of the mid-70s.

In the wake of the Three-Day Week in February 1974, when Ted Heath called a snap General Election after just three-and-a-half years in office, it was a gamble he lost; confronted by a country seemingly held hostage by powerful unions (particularly the miners), Sailor Ted figured the electorate would echo his intentions, but it didn’t, and his nemesis Harold Wilson returned to power. However, Labour’s tiny majority led to a second General Election in October the same year, when Heath again suffered defeat. Two General Elections in 1974 were then followed by the EEC Referendum in June 1975. After all that breathless action (and a fair amount of voter fatigue), it was then another four years before the hustings were occupied again.

Some could view Theresa May’s decision as a similar gamble to that taken by Heath 43 years ago. Whilst her party’s points lead over Labour is unparalleled since Margaret Thatcher took on Michael Foot, May has so far been seen as something of a ditherer and her decision today is a U-turn on her stated stance re the Fixed Parliaments Act. There is also a surprise element relating to the fact that the controversial constituency boundary changes, which will hugely benefit the Conservatives, won’t come into effect until October, something that would have been to her advantage had she held out till the autumn. Moreover, not every Tory is happy with May’s Brexit approach, so her party is not necessarily as united as she’d like us to believe.

Prime Ministers who take office following the resignation of their predecessor are usually presented with the tricky option of either serving out their predecessor’s term and hoping they can strengthen the previous mandate when the time comes or capitalising on their ‘honeymoon period’ by going for a snap Election and guaranteeing a full term for themselves in their own right. When Harold MacMillan succeeded the disgraced Anthony Eden in 1957, he hung on for over two-and-a-half years before calling an Election, which he won; Alec Douglas-Home waited a year after MacMillan’s departure – and lost.

Infamously, Jim Callaghan waited three years after taking over from Harold Wilson and paid the price. Most pundits reckon had he called a General Election in the autumn of 1978, he’d have won it; he delayed the decision till the following spring, by which time the nation had endured the Winter of Discontent, and handed victory to Thatcher. Gordon Brown might have clinched it had he done likewise when he experienced his only moment of popularity after superseding Tony Blair, but he too dithered, the Credit Crunch hit, and Brown never recovered. It’s rarely an easy choice.

Two-thirds of MPs are needed to seal Theresa May’s intentions for 8 June, but Jeremy Corbyn has indicated the Labour Party will support her decision. It goes without saying that some in Labour are eager for this Election because they feel their party will be annihilated at the polls, a disaster they can then hold Jezza wholly responsible for and finally oust him. On the other hand, the Corbynistas believe their man can do no wrong and are unswerving in their conviction that he can defeat the Tories, possibly by joining with the remnants of the Lib Dems (not that this would significantly boost their numbers, mind). Scotland obviously doesn’t figure in this wildly optimistic scenario.

So, here we go again, sooner than most of us reckoned, but in these turbulent times for the nation, perhaps apt. I thought the country would vote Remain and I couldn’t foresee Donald Trump becoming President, so I shan’t be making any rash predictions this time. Mind you, I’d be extremely surprised at any other result than a Conservative landslide. I hope I’m wrong (again).

© The Editor

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REGIONAL VARIATIONS

Whenever the topic of homogenisation of the UK raises its ugly head, it’s only natural that the most visible examples out on the street tend to grab centre-stage – a conversation invariably dominated by the corporate chain-stores that render each shopping area in every town or city indistinguishable from the next. In a sense, this is the retail equivalent of the ‘Subtopia’ notion coined by architectural critic Ian Nairn in the 50s to describe the uniform dreariness of urban town-planning and its disregard for those who have to live amongst its end results. However, one overlooked element of homogenisation has crept upon the populace with far sneakier stealth than the Identikit shopping experience, and that has been with us for thirteen years now.

The Broadcasting Act of 1990 has had several far-reaching effects on the television landscape, but what it did to the nation’s sole commercial broadcaster prior to the arrival of Sky has perhaps served to alter the way in which the different regions of the UK are represented via the goggle box. It’s not so long ago that a holiday in a different part of the country to the one you knew as home would include tuning in to that region’s ITV station. It was a curious experience, like slipping into a parallel universe. It looked familiar, and yet it was distinctly different.

The original ITV formula of only the prime-time viewing schedule being networked meant that the majority of broadcasting hours were in the hands of the regional companies that made up the network; and they often played by their own rules. Imported dramas screened either in the afternoon or following ‘News at Ten’, such as Aussie soaps or US cop series, would be at different stages of their respective runs depending which ITV service you received. I recall a holiday down south in the early 80s, moving from the TVS region to the TSW one over a fortnight, and seeing the same episode of ‘Hill Street Blues’ two weeks running, an episode I’d already seen once before on YTV around six months earlier.

It wasn’t just the differences in imported shows, however; the same applied to the home-grown presentation. The on-screen graphics differed from region-to-region; some stations had in-vision continuity announcers and some (such as the old Westward company and its successor TSW) also produced their own opt-out children’s slots such as ‘Gus Honeybun’s Magic Birthdays’, a five-minute spot in which a puppet rabbit accompanied a station stalwart as he or she announced viewers’ birthdays. Even the national sport was regionalised, with each ITV company producing its own football programme on a Sunday afternoon, with the home teams local ones.

Whilst the big bucks of the so-called Big Five ITV companies were geared towards producing networked shows, one of the specifications in each ITV contract was that the franchise holders had to make a sizeable proportion of programmes exclusive to their own audience. Some of these were in the vein parodied by ‘The Fast Show’ character Bob Fleming – i.e. rustic country pursuits of interest to OAPs in the region and nobody outside of it – or shows that were eventually networked, such as Border Television’s ‘Mr and Mrs’ and even ‘Countdown’, which had a short run on YTV a year before the launch of Channel 4.

In those days, ITV was simply a generic name that wasn’t used much in the regions. Viewers would ask each other things like ‘What’s on ATV tonight?’ The regional station was seen as the alternative to the BBC and their on-screen identities were highly visible. Wherever you happened to be in the country, you were made aware which region produced the programme you were watching due to the short ‘ident’ that introduced it. Anyone over a certain age will recall Anglia’s silver statuette of the Black Prince on horseback, the nautical symbol of Southern and its gentle acoustic guitar jingle, the collected London skyline materialising from the river that represented Thames, the Yorkshire chevron and the pounding notes from ‘Ilkley Moor Baht ‘at’, ATV’s dramatic horns and three-colour dots that formed into its familiar logo and so on. Some of these idents were often more memorable than the programmes that followed them and remain engrained on the collective consciousness.

Before the intrusive incursion of breakfast television, many of the ITV companies even opened proceedings on a morning with a short travelogue film of the region, something that helped define the region as a location in its own broadcasting right even further. These films, most of which can be found today on YouTube, are now fascinating time capsules of a lost world, a world before UK plc. All this changed with the ramifications of the 1990 Broadcasting Act.

In the classic Thatcherite ‘free-market’ mould, the Act removed the barriers preventing the bigger ITV companies gobbling-up the smaller ones. Decades-old complaints that the IBA favoured the big guns when it came to prized networked slots were cast aside as the unedifying corporate cannibalism got underway. This began with Yorkshire Television acquiring Tyne-Tees in 1992 and continued throughout the last decade of the twentieth century so that by 2004 Granada and Carlton owned all the ITV franchises for England and Wales. With only STV in Scotland and UTV in Northern Ireland out of their reach, Granada and Carlton remodelled the ITV network along BBC lines, a national broadcaster with no sentiment for the regions.

This changed the nature of ITV forever thereafter. Regional continuity announcers and all regional programmes exclusive to the region that produced them (bar the weekday news magazine shows) vanished, replaced by a nationwide schedule transmitted from the capital. Gradually, each individual ITV franchise holder was renamed to reflect the changes. London Weekend Television and Carlton Television merged to become ITV London, Yorkshire Television became ITV Yorkshire, Anglia Television became ITV Anglia etc. The visual symbols that had represented the independence of the regions since ITV’s genesis in the 50s disappeared beneath the ITV plc logo, but more disappeared than just that.

When it comes to homogenisation of this country, one only has to turn the telly on to see it – or tune in to your one-time Independent Local Radio station; but that’s another story for another day.

© The Editor

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