26 RIP IT UP
No one that writes an 851 page analysis of the British Civil Service called Whitehall is likely to be tempted by polemic. The author Peter Hennessy may have the title Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield but the same man gushed when he was given a place in the House of Lords. The ‘h’ in Nympsfield is missing for a reason. There are no nymphs in Nympsfield or, if there are, there cannot be many. Nympsfield is a small village of over 300 people in Gloucestershire. No one then should have reservations about calling Hennessy a dry man. The likelihood is that he would be flattered rather than offended. This week Peter Hennessy has been quoted as saying that Britain faces a constitutional crisis greater than any he has seen in his lifetime. A simple translation for simple folks like me is that this is really serious. Poor Pfeffel, what have you done?
The British Constitution is what is known as unwritten. Procedure and behaviour is governed by conventions and precedent rather than written rules. This means the British Constitution is kind of like the early days of cricket. There was a time when batsmen walked away from their wicket before waiting for a decision from the umpire and kids playing football avoided making fouls because it would ruin the game. The problem is Pfeffel was not that good at cricket and he cheats in the games that he does play. This means Hennessy is right. We have a problem. Without written rules to underpin the Constitution there is little that can be done to remove a prime minister that lies to the House of Commons, fails to observe legislation agreed by him and his cabinet and rips up the rules regarding ministerial conduct and accountability.
Some Tory lackeys have claimed that the fuss about Partygate is mere tittle-tattle or as Pfeffel would say, a mountain of piffle. Tittle-tattle or piffle it is not. Pfeffel has defied legislation, and this occurred just weeks after he had signed off that legislation. This rule breaking has led to Pfeffel and others close to him being fined by the Metropolitan Police. Pfeffel has apologised to MPs for breaking the law. He also claims he did not lie to the House of Commons on those occasions when he refused to admit breaking the law. One hates to continue with this Lewis Carroll absurdity but needs must. Chronology has consequence. Pfeffel not only signed off this legislation that he felt entitled to defy. He simultaneously observed a daily routine of reminding the British people, or at least those that watched the telly, that they must observe these new laws. And just in case anyone thinks all this is being sniffy. He wrote an appreciative letter to a child that had forfeited a birthday party because she did not want to spread the virus. Pfeffel stressed to the same child how important it was that we all followed the legislation. That should put one cynical sneer on her face when she hits puberty. What she and we need to realise is that any sentence uttered by Pfeffel containing the word ‘we’ will always struggle for consistency.
Oscar Wilde once said that people could resist anything but temptation. Most of us have had moments when that remark has felt especially pertinent. The difference between Pfeffel and the rest of us is that he never hesitates before embracing temptation. Neither is there in Pfeffel a trace of guilt or shame after the transgressions have been committed. The not rare moral flaw that Wilde identified is multiplied by at least the power of ten by our Pfeffel, or if you want to be gloomy, the prime minister of the United Kingdom. And this simple weakness in a badly flawed human being is why Peter Hennessy is now talking about a constitutional crisis. The recognition that human beings cannot be trusted with excess power is why other countries have written constitutions. No need in Blighty, though, when there were always reliable Brits with a sense of honour. The cynical say politicians have always been self-serving and without honour and that might be true. There was, though, a time when English batsmen walked before hearing the verdict from the umpire and British kids could play football in the street without kicking lumps out of one another. This adherence to rules existed not because everyone had read Mallory. Nor were people especially honourable and wonderful. What they realised, though, was politics had to be an alternative to warring barons, cricket could not be allowed to spoil a relaxing British summer day and surly kids had to be prevented from taking their footballs home. All that, though, happened before Thatcher arrived and redefined politics as nothing other than confrontation and victory.
Thatcher, though, was a woman of her time. There have been other factors. Australia has a longer and hotter summer, and its cricketers are not so concerned about preserving balmy summer days. The Aussies always waited for the umpire decisions and then introduced ‘sledging’. Kids now carry around a lot more than footballs, and abandoned games of footie can be dismissed with shrugs. Truculent childishness also defines Pfeffel, and the influence of Australia is present in the latest government gee-whiz scheme to process in Rwanda future migrants to Britain. The objective is simple. Immigrants to Britain will be redirected to a country that most people would want to avoid, especially those that have been traumatised by events in the country that they were trying to escape. The worldwide reaction was predictable, especially as all these migrants will now look for alternatives to the UK and Rwanda. The British government has been condemned by world leaders as lawless and immoral. Some commentators have suggested the Rwanda scheme is more than a cynical attempt to save Pfeffel and add that too much would need to have been done behind the scenes before the joint announcement was made by the British and Rwandan governments. There is some truth in this but the timing of the announcement suggests the influence of the unsavoury antipodean Lytton Crosby, the man famous for his willingness to throw dead cats on the table. Right now the Rwanda scheme feels like a dead cat thrown to divert attention from a prime minister that should not be just investigated by parliament but forced to resign.
Peter Hennessy might or might not be relieved by the inability of the government to persuade all its MPs to block the referral of Pfeffel and his misdeeds to the Parliamentary Committee On Standards. Despite recent turbulence from the Tory rebels a substantial number of Tory MPs remain opposed to Pfeffel being asked questions about his lawbreaking. The Tory parliamentary majority is 80. At least 40 MPs were not prepared to be identified to their constituents as those that wanted the Prime Minister to avoid investigation. For Tory MPs in marginal seats it was about survival and not honour. There were plenty of others that wanted their blessed leader to be shielded from scrutiny and prevented from being held accountable. They have their reasons. Pfeffel might get nothing more than a slap on the wrist from the Committee on Standards but the real dirt will now be made public.
None of this should surprise anyone. This crisis may have crystallised in a point about the behaviour of Pfeffel but others have played the part. If John Bercow was still the Speaker in the House of Commons then Pfeffel would have endured at least one suspension from the House of Commons. Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, like some umpires, is meant for gentler times. Pfeffel is a problem, and that problem has been ignored too often by Hoyle. A more commanding leader of the opposition would have long ago reduced Pfeffel to a laughing stock and inflicted damage that even Tory loyalists could not have ignored. The lack of an impartial and critical media has encouraged arrogance in a government that, like the people that run the Labour Party, has never given a damn about lacking majority support. Brexit rivalries have meanwhile replaced debate and analysis with gung ho and emotional nationalism.
By slicing graphs and tables into convenient and misleading examples Pfeffel has lied to the House of Commons repeatedly about the economic performance of the British economy and the dreadful and still occurring Covid fatalities. Pfeffel has even had the audacity to claim the achievements of his government have been world beating. He is helped by a British electorate that is not good at numbers. If the disproportionately high number of Covid deaths in the UK is recognised by a truculent few, the majority of Brits walk around believing that the government did the best it could. But while Pfeffel boasts about a superior economic performance the IMF has confirmed that the British economy is being outperformed by all the other countries in the G7. There is more than a constitutional crisis to give Peter Hennessy sleepless nights. Britain has an underpaid and dysfunctional civil service, food banks instead of an adequate welfare state, ineffective and corrupt policing, rampant tax abuse by the very rich, oligarchs rather than British citizens holding the government to account, bankrupt local authorities, an overstretched health service, transport chaos, a cost of living crisis, housing costs beyond ordinary families, daily dumps of sewage in its rivers, inadequate investment in its economy, an unwieldy balance of payment deficit, household debt reaching record levels, serious social division and the rest. The people willing to take responsibility for this mess are either greedy rogues interested in nothing other than their own careers or revolutionaries. The Daily Mirror has identified 50 government scandals that have occurred since the last general election. Not all those scandals should have led to the resignation of Pfeffel as prime minister but a majority of them should have and they would have in those distant days when English batsmen walked without waiting for the verdict from the umpire.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.