August 20, 2020 11:00
Ahead of the paperback publication of his book The English Job, take a look at the holiday that inspired Jack Straw to write it...
22 OCTOBER 2015
‘Cross the dual carriageway at that gap,’ Mohammed, our interpreter, shouted to the driver, taking instructions from his phone, ‘and pull up behind that white car.’
In the dark, we (my wife and I and two friends) saw three large men in plain clothes get out of the white car as we braked behind it. One, shorter, was better-dressed than the other two. He was wearing an immaculately pressed suit, buttoned-up shirt, no tie, and had an enamel insignia in his lapel, with the Iranian emblem on it. He was obviously in charge.
He opened our driver’s door and shouted at him in Persian. The blood visibly drained from the driver’s face. He was bundled into the back of the unmarked white car. One of the other men got into our driver’s seat. Mohammed, who had got out to talk to the other officers, had to scramble back into the people carrier as it was about to drive off.
Our driver had quickly worked out who these men were and knew not to argue. I hoped that they were police officers of some kind, and on our side, but this was far from self-evident. Three decades before, there had been a hard stop in north Tehran on a British diplomat, Edward Chaplin, driving with his wife and young child, with Edward bundled handcuffed and hooded into another car and driven off. I decided not to share this information with the rest of our party. They were already fearing that this was a kidnap.
We sped along the Shiraz ring road again. We had been round and round this road system, which circles the great city, at least three times already and were now very familiar with it. Close to the Botanic Gardens, we abruptly turned into a dimly lit side street to pull up behind another people carrier, identical in make and model to ours. The only differences were that this one had different plates and smoked-glass windows. We were told to be very quick, to transfer all our luggage and ourselves into the new vehicle. A third officer joined us in the back seats, this one carrying an unconcealed pistol.
Off we drove again at high speed for yet another scenic tour of Shiraz’s ring road. As we approached one roundabout, a uniformed police motorcyclist, with a plain-clothes pillion passenger carrying a large sub-machine gun that looked like a Heckler & Koch MP5, drew alongside and had a conversation with the senior official.
We finally arrived not at our booked hotel but at the brash, five-star Shiraz Hotel, which commands a high position on the northern hills overlooking the city. We were put into rooms at the end of the ninth floor, told to lock them and open them to no one. It was then that we learnt that the well-dressed man was an official of the Fars province, and that the others were police officers of varying ranks.
By now, I was assuming that these officers were indeed on our side, and that we were not under house arrest. But could I be certain? As for my emotions, I was doing my best not to have any, though in truth I was in a great muddle about them. I’d had 24-hour police protection throughout my thirteen years in Cabinet, and I kept telling myself that these men were not that different from the British police officers who had kept me safe. On the other hand, I knew enough about Iran, and its competing organs of government, to know that it could be dangerous and unpredictable. I also felt a strong sense of responsibility for the anxiety that had so plainly been caused to the other members of the party. It was I who had prompted the trip, and organised it.
Later, we were let out of our rooms for dinner. In the hotel restaurant, the lugubrious owner of the hotel, who spoke perfect American English, introduced himself and told us how happy he was to have us as unexpected guests. On the way back to our rooms, we were told to stay in them until instructed otherwise. We noticed that the complement of police officers had meanwhile grown to eight.
This was day seven of our Iranian holiday.
If you're interested in reading the rest, The English Job: Understanding Iran is out in paperback on 25th July. Take a look here!
August 11, 2020 15:42
With his new book Royalty Revealed just out, author Brian Hoey picks up his pen to introduce us to the royal family once more!
One of the reasons why I decided to write this book is because so many people, from countries all over the world, have been contacting me to ask questions about various members of the Royal Family. So I thought it might be a good idea to put the correct answers together in alphabetical order, as a form of reference for any and all royal watchers.
Newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations in places as far apart as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan want to know things like: how tall is the Queen (page 128)? Does she have a bank account and a cheque book (page 51)? Who designs Her Majesty’s clothes and helps her to dress (pages 81–82)?
Quite a number of people want to know if they are allowed to send cards and gifts to members of the Royal Family at Christmas and on birthdays. The answer is yes. And if you write directly to the Queen, will you receive a reply. Every single letter she receives (and there are around 1,000 every week) will be acknowledged. But do not send boxes of chocolates or any other foodstuffs. They all, unfortunately, have to be destroyed in these uncertain times. If you want to send a letter, though, the form of address when writing to the Queen is explained on page 106.
There appears to be a lot of confusion about who in the Royal Family is entitled to use the style HRH – His or Her Royal Highness. This is revealed in full. Also, is it true that nearly every member of the Royal Family has a whole string of additional titles to their name, as well as the one for which they are most commonly known? Find out on pages 236–37.
Her Majesty’s Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh attract an enormous amount of interest, with people from all walks of life, from all over the world, anxious to be invited. What are they like and how can you obtain an invitation? (Pages 122–124)
I have also received scores of messages from men and women throughout the UK and further afield, all wanting to know how they can get a job in the Royal Household and how much can they expect to be paid. Well, there are always vacancies at the Palace and every enquiry, whether by email, post or in person, is taken seriously. However, don’t expect to get rich working for the Royals. They don’t have to pay top dollar to attract the best people. The prestige of being employed by Her Majesty is more than enough for a few years, and can usually guarantee a much better paid job on the outside later. (Pages 221–223)
The Queen is attended by a number of Ladies-in-Waiting, most of whom have been with her for many years. In fact, the senior Lady, a Duchess, is 100 years old. Who are they and what do they do? The answers to all this and more can be found on pages 147-49.
I hope Royalty Revealed will answer all the questions that have been asked, as Buckingham Palace has been helpful in ensuring the accuracy of this book by confirming purely factual details, as it invariably does. But any additional comments are mine and mine alone.
Royalty Revealed is now available to buy on the Biteback website: take a look here.
August 05, 2020 09:00
Ahead of the publication of his book Populism on Trial, former judge and barrister Inigo Bing talks about his inspirations and the dangers of populism...
What inspired you to write Populism on Trial?
I would not use the word ‘inspiration’, it was more a realisation that the judiciary were becoming a target for ill-informed attack from angry politicians and journalists, which were often in the form of sneers and jeers. There was precious little truth in what was being written and said about the role of judges in modern Britain. I thought it was time that the words ‘rule of law’ were explained properly. We take it for granted that we have a rule of law and that judges are independent, but what exactly does this mean? The more I thought about it the more I realised that populism was drowning out some obvious truths about law and our unwritten Constitution.
I then started to try and find out how this all started. Why did judges become the target for attack? It started in the mid-1990s when populism became a part of politics. The more I looked into it, the more concerning the attacks on the judiciary had become. The notorious headline about judges being ‘enemies of the people’ was part of a trend and it continued with the attack on the Supreme Court in the prorogation decision. I decided that it was time for the anti-populist arguments to be made as strenuously as the populist ones. Serving judges cannot answer back because of their independence and political neutrality. As I am now retired I thought that I could put my experience to good use and put across the other side of the populist appeal.
Can you sum up what it’s about?
Basically, it is about three things: populism, the rule of law and the threat populism poses to the rule of law. I have devoted the early part of the book to trying to define what populism is. In essence the politics and economics of globalisation have left many less well off than they expected to be and these people have felt helpless in tackling the forces beyond their control. Populism appeals to this sense of disaffection and says: ‘Listen to us, we can solve your problems for you.’ The solution they offer is simple: ‘Your problems have been caused by elitists, remote systems of government and international institutions. It’s not your fault. We can represent you directly by changing the way these institutions have failed you.’ Therefore, populism is a creed of direct, not representative, democracy. This sort of democracy is different from our traditional model. First, everything is simple, not complicated. Second, language must be strident and uncompromising. Third, there must be a charismatic leader to deliver the message. Once in power, populists try to dismantle the institutions that representative democracy protects. President Trump called it ‘draining the swamp’, but we must not pretend the same processes are not going on in Britain. Representative democracy is never a single voice. Our elected representatives should reflect a plurality of interest where the majority may rule, but where minorities must be protected and the majority must not become a tyranny.
This is where the rule of law comes in. The rule of law incorporates two elements: protection of our rights through independent courts and the protection of our Constitution to ensure the executive is not too powerful. In our system it is Parliament which is supreme. The Prime Minister does not hold exclusive power.
Over the last twenty-five years the inevitable tensions that exist between the judiciary and the executive on the one hand and Parliament and the executive on the other have become strident and shrill. The judiciary have been caught in the cross-fire. I have picked a few controversial cases in criminal law, immigration and human rights where judges have suffered undeserved hatred and contempt. I have tried to explain what led to those decisions and the broad principles that the judges applied. In this way I hope that the book will make the public better informed about how judges go about their tasks. Finally, I have offered some thoughts of my own about how populism should be challenged.
What challenges face those people making and upholding the law in Britain today?
For those making the law – MPs and peers in the two Houses of Parliament – the main challenge has been the arrival of referendums in British politics. There have been quite a few: on devolution, proportional representation and the creation of mayors for example, but the referendum on the membership of the EU presented a big challenge. Who is more powerful? Those who were elected to represent us in a general election, or the people who voted directly in a referendum? This question has not properly been answered and it is a challenge which those who make laws must confront.
For those whose job it is to uphold the law, the main challenge is to maintain strict judicial independence. Judges are good at stoically withstanding unfair criticism but the government holds the purse strings. Law is undermined if there is no functioning court system, if legal aid is withheld in deserving cases and if an all-powerful state is not held to account by the judicial review of executive decisions. It is common knowledge that our courts are underfunded and now there are moves to restrict access to judicial review. Serving judges, led by the Lord Chief Justice, have been courageous in standing up for the rule of law, but sometimes it is necessary to go further and to expose what may lie behind a determination by politicians to threaten the values of toleration and pluralism which underpin law. This is a big challenge which is really a political issue and my book tries to confront it. Serving judges cannot do this as they would be entering a political debate which their independence forbids them from doing.
How have recent tumultuous events such as Brexit affected people’s trust in the law?
Brexit and its aftermath affected trust in our institutions enormously. At the heart of this was the clash between Leavers led mostly by Conservative politicians against their Remainer leader, David Cameron. Those who were against Cameron believed, when they won, that the referendum result should be interpreted as a direct instruction. This meant that it was an instruction to Theresa May. This inevitably involved side-lining Parliament, yet Parliament was supposed to be one of our trusted institutions. On the other side of the argument there were those who said that despite the referendum, Parliament remained supreme and it was for Parliament to decide how, when and on what terms Britain would leave the EU. This clash involved trust on many levels. Judges were called ‘enemies’ and those who wanted a sensible parliamentary debate about Brexit were called ‘Remoaners’.
Trust was shattered all over the place and in the turmoil some simple constitutional principles were forgotten. When the judges were drawn into a battle that was already fractious and unpleasant it was inevitable that the trust in law would suffer as a result.
What are the dangers of this?
I think the dangers are all too clear. The tensions between politicians and judges had been simmering for a number of years, notably in the clashes between Michael Howard, when he was Home Secretary, and the judges during the early 1990s. Brexit provided the opportunity for this simmering discontent among those who thought judges were too powerful to come to the surface. This is dangerous because the rule of law is fundamental to a liberal democracy. If we believe in personal autonomy, gender equality, privacy, freedom of speech and assembly and so on, we depend on the rule of law and the independence of our judges to protect these valuable results of human progress. If the judiciary are perceived as just giving human rights to rapists and murderers or meddling in politics where they have no business to be, then the rule of law which protects us all is undermined. There are clear signs now that this is happening and I have drawn attention to this in the book.
What can law-makers and the government do to help fix this deteriorating trust?
The first thing they can do is not to pretend there is a crisis in the rule of law and our Constitution. There is a general assumption within this present government that there is a real problem with democracy, rights and our Constitution. The Conservatives have promised to set up a commission to look into this. The reality is there is no crisis in our Constitution, although there are anomalies, nor is there anything wrong with judges using the European Convention of Human Rights when deciding cases. Judges absolutely recognise Parliament is supreme, which is something that those who passionately want to leave the EU often do not admit. There is no crisis about rights and democracy which needs fixing.
The second thing they can do is to recognise that in our unwritten Constitution there are ‘conventions’ which are necessary to hold the fabric of our fragile Constitution together. The Victorian scholar, A. V. Dicey called these the customs, practices and maxims of the Constitution. These provide the scenery on the political stage. Unfortunately, these ‘rules of the game’ as they are sometimes called, are now routinely broken. The independence of the civil service is being undermined, power is being drawn away from Parliament and the Cabinet into 10 Downing Street, and the integrity of professional diplomats is under threat. In all past political controversies the ‘rules of the game’ were respected and honoured. Not any more. I regret that.
What’s the most important thing you’d like people to take away from reading Populism on Trial?
There are actually two things. First, the absolute positive value of the rule of law. Too often we just assume we have a rule of law without actually thinking what it means and how important it is in holding tyranny and absolutism at bay. Second, I want people to believe that a sense of history is very important when getting to grips with modern problems. There is no better yesterday. When judges were too timid to hold the executive to account (as they were), or the police were above the law (as they often were), Britain was not a better place. I hope that readers will take from the book a realisation that we cannot capture a time gone by when tensions between law and politics did not exist. Tensions are healthy but undermining law is the route to despotism.
Inigo's book, Populism on Trial, is out on 20 August 2020: take a look here!
July 28, 2020 10:00
It’s time for Parliamentary recess, but one thing won’t change over the break: the discord being felt between many MPs that is currently on display so spectacularly during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions.
Confused? Take advantage of the few months off to swot up on the ins and outs of Parliamentary life, from finding out what the Speaker’s role is all about to learning the knack of shining at the despatch box.
Punch & Judy Politics, by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton
This is a comprehensive guide to all things PMQs, written by political veterans Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Containing a handy history of the tradition, with all its quirks and foibles, the book also draws on the pairs’ own experiences prepping MPs for the big day and reporting on it. Full of strange anecdotes and unique insights, it’s the one you need to have to hand when watching Starmer face off against Johnson on a Wednesday lunchtime!
Find out more here.
John Bercow: Call to Order, by Sebastian Whale
The Speaker is somewhat of an enigmatic figure in the Commons: what does he actually do, and how can you become one? Find out the answer in Sebastian Whale’s detailed biography of the life of the last Speaker, John Bercow. Call to Order dives into Bercow’s early years, but also recounts the run-up to Bercow’s bid for the Speakership and his life in the Speaker’s chair- including the way he revolutionised Prime Minister’s Questions.
Find out more here.
Confessions of a Recovering MP, by Nick de Bois
Now you know what the Speaker’s role is, what’s it like to be sitting in the benches during the big day? Nick de Bois knows: for five years, he was the MP for Enfield North, and this book is the history of his time in Westminster Palace. From his first days in Parliament through to his days as a Special Adviser and Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab, this is definitely a peek behind the screen of being an MP, including the all-important PMQs…
Find out more here.
How to be an MP, by Paul Flynn
Fancy trying your hand at asking the questions yourself? Then you’ll need to be an MP. But where to start?
This handy guide by Paul Flynn has it all. From the all-important Backbenchers’ Commandments to guidance on how to socialise at work parties, it’s an indispensable look at how to do the job- and how to inveigle your way to a question slot on a Wednesday…
Find out more here.
July 20, 2020 10:00
Ahead of the publication of her book, Elitism: A Progressive Defence, author Eliane Glaser discusses what theatre's coronavirus crisis can teach us about how we see elitism...
The UK’s creative and media industries are on the brink of devastation. The government’s £1.5 billion arts bailout is unlikely to save many venues: a leading theatre company in Southampton has already closed. The Southbank Centre has warned it may have to cut two-thirds of its staff. The Guardian has announced the axing of 180 jobs; the loss of 520 posts in BBC News is surely just the start. Tech giants are gobbling up yet more of the book trade; the majority of small publishers in the UK fear for their future. Museums and galleries are losing half their revenue and are set to jettison more than half their workforce. The Creative Industries Federation predicts that the UK’s creative sector will be hit twice as hard as the wider economy.
As for higher education, the government has announced a rescue package for universities at risk of collapse, but with restrictive strings attached. There is a jobs freeze for academics, with no end in sight.
The coronavirus crisis has shown us how much we rely not only on those who save our lives but on those who make our lives worth living. Released from the demands of work and dutiful sociability, many have been reminded – through tantalising online performances, virtual exhibitions, radio broadcasts or finally opening those novels languishing on the bedside table – the joys and consolations of music, theatre, art, literature and contemplation.
Yet this glimpse of what is really important to us is in danger of being stuffed back into its box. Instead of a collective effort to save our national treasures, there is instead a right-wing backlash against so-called elitism. ‘It is time to get tough with the anti-business arts elite,’ writes Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph. Even those who produce and thrive on arts and ideas seem curiously tongue-tied in its defence. ‘Theatre culture in this country can often seem elitist,’ theatre producer Amber Massie-Blomfield hastened to acknowledge recently while making a case for the survival of pantomime.
We are led to believe that these are luxuries we can no longer afford, their losses inevitable sacrifices in straitened times. Yet even in the midst of the pandemic, over three quarters of the world’s richest families – who have an average fortune of £1.25 billion each – have reported an increase in their already vast fortunes. In the UK, the amount of wealth in private hands stands at a stunning £13 trillion. There is £4.3 billion in personalised number plates alone.
It’s easy to forget that culture and intellectualism were being undermined way before Covid-19: the Arts Council’s budget has been cut by 30 per cent since 2010, meaning reduced grants to the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Almost £400 million has been cut from local authority arts budgets since the advent of austerity. British culture has been hit disproportionately hard: local government funding for culture in the UK is now almost the lowest in Europe. The proportion of its GDP that the UK spends on the arts is less than half that of France.
As I argue in Elitism: A Progressive Defence, the long-term decline of our arts, culture and higher education is being hastened and justified by a pervasive anti-elitism. Right-wing populists have diverted public anger away from the obscene profiteering of billionaires, banks and global corporations and turned it onto cultural and educational high standards. They have persuaded us that the real masters of the universe are ‘liberal elite’ commentators on dwindling salaries, MPs – themselves victims of mass trolling, death threats and even murder – and members of the cultural precariat. Vast disparities of wealth and power thus escape scrutiny, while everything that gives life value and meaning has to fight for its very existence. It’s time for liberals to throw off their nervousness about being branded elite and stand up for the things that enrich us, stretch us and lift us away from the immediate and the everyday. We must urgently reject the dangerous distortions of anti-elitism while we still have something to save.
Eliane's book, Elitism: A Progressive Defence is out on 18th August 2020: take a look here!