First, a very happy 80th birthday today to a member of Reaction in Paisley. You know who you are. Wine is on the way. Soon, we’ll get to raise a glass.
And now, some good news about Covid. When a government screws up, it deserves a kicking. When ministers got a major call right, they deserve credit for it.
In July, the Prime Minister sanctioned a full re-opening, ending many of the restrictions deployed to combat the spread of Covid 19. At the time, there were dark warnings. This was presented as a reckless decision likely to lead to catastrophe. The zero Covid crowd (rather quiet now, though revving up for another go this winter) issued bleak prophecies rooted in a weird obsession with social control.
Instead, the reopening worked. The UK had an exit wave in the summer that did not overwhelm the NHS and thanks to the success of the vaccines combined with natural immunity, life has returned. Schools are back to operating almost like normal; most Britons are out and about; reopening was a success. This achievement has been elided over as though it was always going to happen. No, it took the government and an act of will to face down those predicting disaster.
This weekend, we’re back in creeping Covid terror territory with a likely further deleterious impact on mental health. Europe is closing down and Austria is mandating vaccines while locking down the unvaccinated. Is the UK going to join in?
We’re going into winter and we’ve all, surely, learnt the hard way that the course of this terrible disease is not easy to predict. It has already killed 143,716 Britons and more than five million globally.
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As the broadcaster Julia Hartley Brewer pointed out this morning, referencing the official statistics listed on the Spectator Covid data app, we need to stay calm now we have vaccines that work.
Hospitalisations here remain steady and Covid deaths are down 90% from the peak. Some 387,057 Britons had their booster jabs on Thursday.
There are trade-offs, and the disease cannot be eliminated. We have to adapt and get on with life, rather than submit annually to a system of coercion that privileges the affluent who can sit out any lockdown in comfort and punishes those less well-off. Freedom from control is not just an abstract concept, it has real economic and psychological benefits. I hope the UK government holds its nerve.
Get better leaders please, America
It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday and I’ll be a guest with American friends. After Kabul, Trump and the financial crisis, Americans are worried and sensitive to criticism. Pro-Americans like me criticise because we like the place and want the country to recover its lost gift for leadership, with China and Russia on the march. America needs better politicians than the current crop.
Look out for my interview with Iain Dale on Reaction on YouTube tomorrow, about his new book The Presidents: 250 years of American Political Leadership.
This weekend there’s a test with protests planned. The verdict in the Rittenhouse trial had only been out for a few minutes when leaders started piling in.
The outgoing Mayor of New York (thank goodness he’s outgoing, friends there tell me he’s trashed the place) was quick to respond to the news that Kyle Rittenhouse had been acquitted on all five charges. Rittenhouse killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, in Kenosha, Wisconsin during the protests in August 2020.
Bill de Blasio, Mayor of NYC, tweeted after the jury delivered its ruling: “This verdict is disgusting and it sends a horrible message to this country. Where is the justice in this? We can’t let this go. We need stronger laws to stop violent extremism from within our own nation. Now is the time.”
What would these stronger laws be? He didn’t specify, but concluded with a rallying cry – now is the time – that could be misinterpreted by angry activists when read at speed on social media. Now is the time for what exactly?
That Rittenhouse fired the gun, and had put himself in an extremely stupid position carrying an assault rifle in a dangerous situation, is not in doubt. The jury concluded that when he fired he was acting in self-defence. If you formed your view on the Rittenhouse case based on catching some misleading commentary on a US network such as CNN, or a snippet reported over here, you may have assumed he would or should be convicted.
The jury and judge sat through weeks of this evidence, and if you tuned into it at all or read the court reporting (I did) it was obvious he was likely to be acquitted. America has a gun culture. There was a riot going on. Rittenhouse was pursued. He was attacked and he fired when clearly in fear of his life.
This can be true and it can simultaneously be true, as it is, that there is manifest inequity in the legal system’s treatment of African Americans. Just as it can be true that this inequity does not justify torching local businesses and rioting.
The whole thing is a tragedy, a mess, a disaster. Just the sort of delicate moment that calls for calm leadership.
President Biden almost got it right. Unfortunately, by adding two short words to his statement he got it wrong and has risked inflaming rather than calming the situation.
It’s worth quoting in full:
“While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken. I ran on a promise to bring Americans together, because I believe that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. I know that we’re not going to heal our country’s wounds overnight, but I remain steadfast in my commitment to do everything in my power to ensure that every American is treated equally, with fairness and dignity, under the law. I urge everyone to express their views peacefully, consistent with the rule of law. Violence and destruction of property have no place in our democracy. The White House and Federal authorities have been in contact with Governor Evers’s office to prepare for any outcome in this case, and I have spoken with the Governor this afternoon and offered support and any assistance needed to ensure public safety.”
That phrase – “myself included” – is a mistake. The President is questioning the judgment and then in the same sentence Biden says the jury has spoken. Why be angry and concerned about a judgment when it was arrived at freely by a jury that sat through complex evidence?
Is there a prospect of America getting the better leadership it – and the democracies – need? Somehow a great country seems ready to run a race for the Presidency in 2024 in which the two candidates are Joe Biden and Donald Trump?
There are signs of hope, if not yet in terms of the Presidential race at least at a city and state level. The Mayor-elect of New York City is Eric Adams, one of the most interesting, exciting figures to emerge for many a year in the US. Democrat Adams is a retired police officer who is for strengthening the police, rather than defunding the police. He’s an African American who had a tough upbringing, including spending time in a gang. He served in the New York Senate and in January he takes over as Mayor. Let’s see what he can do, but the signs are encouraging. Adams is pro-economic growth, in favour of public order and patriotic. This could catch on.
On the Republican side, look at the victorious lieutenant governor-elect of Virginia. Winsome Sears is a moderate Republican, born in Jamaica. Her background is in business and she is married to a Marine Corps veteran.
The great American Republic can be renewed. American friends, please hurry up with this.
Number 10 in trouble on migration
What are the biggest dilemmas facing the government Boris Johnson runs? How long have you get? Inflation and the cost of living is serious. Sleaze and second jobs for MPs looked like a big deal but already that feels very last week. Then there’s the threat from Russia and the unravelling on Europe’s eastern borders.
Illegal immigration is what most terrifies this government, because it is a dangerous problem seemingly with no answer.
Thousands of migrants are arriving by boat and no-one knows how to fix it. I certainly don’t. Anyone who claims they do know how is probably shouting populist soundbites and pretending. The Australian policy of turning away migrant boats worked primarily because of geography and the vast distances involved. The English Channel is only 21 miles wide and one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Is the Royal Navy supposed to venture out on jet-skis, armed with poles to push back boats containing frightened migrants and their young children. This isn’t Swallows and Amazons. Think about what could go wrong.
The government is increasingly desperate. That is why it has been trying to persuade the Albanian government to agree to various harebrained schemes, such as setting up what can only be described as camps.
The voters Boris needs, in the so-called Red Wall and beyond, really dislike illegal immigration and it seems they are noticing what is going on at the coast, though it merits barely a mention in parliament. While cosmopolitan Boris himself used to be very much in favour of as much immigration as possible, his most loyal voters have yet to grasp this and survival necessitates he obscures his true view.
The Home Secretary Priti Patel is struggling. This weekend it is being reported Boris is furious about the Channel crisis. Some poor sod is to be identified and charged with sorting out the impossible problem. No wonder Johnson is concerned, because this threatens to consume him in the fires of public opinion.
What I’m watching
Succession, series two. A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was the last person left in the media who hadn’t seen the American series focussing on a fictional US tycoon and his family. They’re in the news business, theme parks and cruise liners, although several of the family should be in jail. Now, I’m hooked, but as a media person I can only take one hit, one episode, per day. More than that is too much. The come down afterwards from an overdose of Succession is steep and debilitating. This is a very stressful series to watch. “I get an onset of PTSD watching it just from recognition of meetings I’ve been in,” says a friend and media executive. Another says: “Why are all the characters so horrible to each other? Why is everyone in it horrible?” It’s a good question, a question I wanted to ask the actor Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Terrible Tom, the ambitious but cowardly son-in-law of the tycoon, the other day when standing behind him in a queue in the supermarket. But Macfadyen is an actor. Terrible Tom is not real and not his fault. Plus, the man was minding his own business shopping for groceries.
Have a good weekend.