2007 - 2021

The Nothing New

THE NOTHING NEW: From The Province of the Cat by George Gunn

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” So opens Samuel Beckett’s 1938 novel, “Murphy”. This is the almost-story of our hero Murphy, having tied himself naked to a rocking chair in his flat, rocking back and forth in the dark. Murphy’s emotional journey, for want of a better phrase, is a series of ritual attempts to find pleasure in various states of sensory deprivation. Conversations between a tight bunch of characters about insanity, chess and death and meditations on the Irish Free State, sex and obscure 17th century Belgian philosophy are some of the narratives more joyous obsessions. The novel goes on like this until it finishes. I mean, what more can you ask?

Samuel Beckett is the perfect author to read during a pandemic and the concurrent constitutional crisis, both honking like dead fish from the gills down from corruption. Why dream of escaping to a sun drenched island to become infected when you can easily achieve it at home? Corruption, like capital, will flow to wherever it gets the best results. So it follows that conspiracy will also flow to where it gets a similar return. If there is an incentive then you will see an outcome. If the derailing of Scottish independence is what you desire then the entire and sad Alex Salmond affair is what occurs. A result. Job done. But who benefits? As Murphy would have it, “Any fool can turn a blind eye but who knows what the ostrich sees in the sand?”

The most maukit of the rotting fish are to be found in London, not Edinburgh. Mixed metaphors I can supply ad nauseum. Mitigation for the sheer sloomit barrow-boy hood-winkery and green geg-eyed greed, displayed by the Conservative Party in power during this cruel pandemic, is less forthcoming.

Let us begin with the Queen of Carnage, as she is known. The conservative Peer Dido Harding was appointed as Head of the National Institute for Health (for England) Protection in August. She is the wife of a Conservative MP and friend of former Prime Minister David Cameron. Dido Harding was not interviewed for the post. There were no other applicants. She was just handed the job. The result is death on a World War One scale. Dido Harding was not responsible – she was complicit.

She’s not the only one to land a top job this way. Scotland is, historically, a colonial province for this very reason. Each week it seems another individual secures a role of vital public importance, without any public advertisement and bypassing any fair or due process. Very often that individual, surprise surprise, has personal and political connections to the British Government. In any other country, we’d call it what it is. Cronyism is too polite a word. It is corruption.

Last month, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson appointed an ex-Conservative MP to a high-profile role that pays £60,000 a year for two days a week work – despite the person having no relevant work experience at all. On the following Monday it was revealed that a company chaired by a senior Government procurement advisor has been awarded a £38 million contract by the Health Department. Then some days later Dominic Cummings admitted that he played a role in a government decision to give more than £500,000 without a bidding process to an opinion research company run by his friends. Are you following? This is how democracy is destroyed. If we let it.

There is some good news. Not that Matt Hancock would agree. A tenacious, crowd funded, public accountability group, the Good Law Project, proved in the English high court last month (19 February) that the UK Government had breached rules in failing to publish the details of Government PPE (personal protective equipment) purchases worth billions. The High Court ruled that, “The Secretary of State acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the Transparency Policy” and that “there is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the Secretary of State breached his legal obligation to publish Contract Award Notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.”

In handing down the judgment, Judge Chamberlain brought into sharp focus why this case was so important. “The Secretary of State spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020. The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded.”

The Judge went on to say that if Government had complied with its legal obligations we “would have been able to scrutinise CANs and contract provisions, ask questions about them and raise any issues with oversight bodies such as the NAO or via MPs in Parliament.” In other words, when Government eschews transparency, it evades accountability. Both The Good Law Project in pursuing this action and Source Direct on reporting it have done sterling work in bringing such Government ill-tricketness and chicanery to the public domain, when the majority of the mainstream press have either treated it somewhat cagily or not at all.

As The Good Law Project put it themselves, “We shouldn’t be forced to rely on litigation to keep those in power honest, but in this case it’s clear that our challenge pushed the Government to comply with its legal obligations. Judge Chamberlain stated that the admission of breach by Government was ‘secured as a result of this litigation and at a late stage of it’ and ‘I have no doubt that this claim has speeded up compliance’. It begs the question, if we hadn’t brought this legal challenge, what other contract details would have remained hidden from view?”

As James Foley on Source Direct has pointed out, “This (UK) Government’s approach discriminates against those born without a silver spoon in their mouth. It’s unfair to those who don’t rub shoulders with high-ranking Ministers. And it’s unfair to groups who the data shows are shut out of public life. It’s time to put an end to it.”

It is as tedious, sadly, to write about corruption, yet again, and to have to read about it, yet again. In the scheme of things the “who said what to whom and when” psycho-barney being acted out in Holyrood’s committee rooms is what an old editor I used to work with would call “dull plops”. Even more sadly Matt Hancock’s slippery approach to probity and the latest five or six hour testament by those who are always right, is the light falling on “the nothing new”. The gravitational pull of corruption altars the natural flow of all aspects of our public life, warps our political structures, not least our attitudes and perceptions to the on-going tragedy of this terrible pandemic. The social and economic inequalities which lay hidden in plain sight before March 2020 have been exposed for all to see by the seismic impact of covid-19 on our domestic world.

Brexit has played its part, encouraging the Conservative politicians to act in ways they might not dare to attempt if the UK was still in the EU. It has brought out the worst in them, so much so that many of them live in a fantasy world. Every promise Boris Johnson and Michael Gove made to the public, pre-Brexit referendum, is turning to ashes in their mouths. Because of Covid-19 and their own evangelical zeal they have been “mugged by reality” as they used to say themselves about the Liberal Democrats. For example Liz Truss’s wonderous claims last month about the trade deal she has secured with India were proven to be less than frank. As Nick Cohen succinctly put it in the Guardian (February 13), “It was pure propaganda: utter bullshit.” Further on in his article he concluded that the UK Governments unwritten policy of, “Reworking reality is preferable to (them) accepting that Brexit has left us ripe for exploitation.”

Depressing as all this is it is another example of “the nothing new”. The fish continue to rot. The reality of a world wide pandemic, you might think, would bring out the best in politicians. Sadly no. The UK and the EU are at different stages of vaccine roll out. The chauvinistic glee being expressed north of the white cliffs of Dover does not detract from the needless danger this set off circumstances exposes innocent people to. The wider international impacts are yet more stark, a fact highlighted by what UN Secretary General António Guterres calls the “wildly uneven and unfair” distribution of vaccines. So far, a mere ten countries account for 75 percent of global vaccinations. 130 countries have not yet received a single dose. Why is this? “Vaccine equality,” the UN Secretary General said, “is the biggest moral test before the global community”. The World Bank was already forecasting that events would push a “truly unprecedented” 119 and 124 million people into extreme poverty. The International Labour Organisation also observes that workers have lost $3.7 trillion in earnings during the pandemic.

I owe all this information to the excellent work of James Foley of Source Direct. I pass it on because it helps us understand the dimensions we are operating within. If Scotland is to recover from both Brexit and Covid-19 then we have to up our conceptual game when it comes to the sort of society we need to create. A new report from the University of Edinburgh – has reviewed what lessons can be learnt from society’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and can be applied to the fight against climate change. In its prelude it states,

“We must not repeat the mistakes made in the pandemic and these findings show the need for better co-operation to tackle climate change and reduce emissions. The Scottish Government must work more closely with local councils if it is to realise its green ambitions and effect long-lasting change in our communities.”

One fundamental mistake we must not repeat is to tolerate corruption in government, at any level or in any form. We profoundly cannot afford it. We must be optimistic. We cannot afford not to be. It is Spring. The sap is rising. A new world is possible. Murphy has to untie himself from his rocking chair, put on his clothes and get out into the real world and breathe the beautiful air. As I’ve quoted at the beginning of this, the opening of Samuel Beckett’s novel is, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” So just to balance Beckett a bit, as he was not totally without light, here is what we could all say when we are an independent country, and have the facility to control our politicians and make them work for the common good – then, perchance, we can all feel as Murphy felt, “And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word.”

We must all search for a time when we can recognise that word. We are, hopefully, coming to the end of this hard year of lockdown and death. We can muster our poetic resources and believe in a world where the Sun can shine, having the heart to do so, on something new.


©George Gunn 2021
















Comments (14)

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  1. Wul says:

    I must be a dafty. I canny understand how you can be proven to have broken the law and yet still be “Right Honourable”?

    Shouldn’t they be called something else after they break the law? “Rank Badjin” perhaps?

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Wasn’t Rank Badjin an Israeli prime minister?

  2. Wul says:

    Thank you for your writing Mr Gunn. It always hits the nail on the head.

    “And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word.”

    I was musing on a related thought just today; We need to be making Society a good, happy, healthy, interesting fun thing to belong in. Otherwise what the hell is the point? Storing up treasure in our own cupboards, as a bulwark against a rotten society, is no fun and no life.

  3. Mike Wallace says:

    Inspiring stuff, George. Integrity is a quality we should expect and demand in our politicians no matter how often we are disappointed in that expectation.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      No, MIke; the better policy is never to trust and always to expect the worst of our politicians, and to establish and maintain accordingly sufficient checks and balances in our political institutions to stymie their pursuit and exercise of power.

  4. Paula Becker says:

    Since March 2020 Bellacaledonia has been wilfully, or lazily, neglecting the really important questions about Covid.
    Unlike this: https://architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk/2021/02/19/cui-bono-the-covid-19-conspiracy/

    1. Pub Bore says:

      Your problem is the assumption that the current crisis represents some sort of apocalyptic event. It doesn’t; nothing’s new; nothing’s changed; notwithstanding the physical barriers we’ve collectively established and, as a civic duty, are striving to maintain to slow the spread of the virus, the regime under which we live is no more or less ‘totalitarian’ than it has been since the conception of ‘public health’.

      I don’t doubt the sincerity of your paranoia, nor your good intentions in warning us that the sky is falling. What I doubt here is the apocalypticism that’s bewitched you. It’s a religious trope that’s as old as mankind itself, the refutation of which is that ‘we’ve never died a winter yet.’

      1. Paula Becker says:

        I’m not being apocalyptic. How on earth can this situation be apocalyptic when the disease has a fatality rate of 0.23 percent across the population and 0.05 percent for those under 70?
        Nor am I being paranoid. If you read the article you’ll note that the author is dismissing the idea of conspiracy not promoting it.
        We’re not a totalitarian state yet but we’re moving in the direction of increased state control. The Coronavirus Act 2020 stays in place until the end of March and may well be extended. This includes 379 coronavirus-related Statutory Instruments. Those breaking certain coronavirus justified Regulations can be punished with up to 10 years in prison.
        The cost of coronavirus restrictions imposed on the UK – £280 billion and rising.

        1. Pub Bore says:

          The article you reference entreats that, if we don’t mend our ways, we’re for the big fire of totalitarianism. It doesn’t get more apocalyptic than that.

          Paranoia is the discernment of patterns in events from which unfalsifiable interpretations are fallaciously induced post hoc as ex-ante explanations of those events. The article you reference assembles patterns of events, which it then interprets as portents of totalitarianism, which it then presents as ‘evidence’ that those events are leading us to a totalitarian state. That’s the logic of the argument, and it sucks.

          During the course of the 20th century, we created a welfare state. Like it or not, that state controls by carrot and stick almost every aspect of our lives. This hasn’t changed with the pandemic; we’re simply using the power we’ve already invested in the state to establish and maintain the physical barriers we need to slow the spread of the virus to manageable rates. There’s nothing new or necessarily sinister in this.

          1. Pub Bore says:

            The alternative to your ‘totalitarianism’ is that we don’t have a welfare state to manage our public health and we each assume the neoliberal ‘freedom’ or privacy to manage one’s own personal health.

          2. Paula Becker says:

            Before March 2020 I would never have characterised the welfare state as controlling every aspect of my life with ‘carrot or stick’.
            Since March 2020 we’ve been in and out of lockdown and tiers. Told to wear masks. Pressured to be tested. Pressured to be vaccinated. We’ve had a re-write of what it means to be a ‘case’, and a re-write of what herd immunity means. My children now use the kitchen as a classroom while their school stands completely empty. We have rising unemployment, soaring numbers experiencing mental health problems, massive waiting lists for non-Covid NHS treatments. Vaccination programs for tuberculosis and polio have been held up and Social Workers have been unable to check on vulnerable children.
            And the author of all those articles I provided a link to is currently under threat from the Regulator of Community Interest Companies and the Architects Regulation Board. Somebody snitched on him for speaking out about Covid 19.
            But no, there’s nothing new or sinister about this.

          3. Pub Bore says:

            I know, Paula; it’s tough. Recovery’s going to be tough too. The key thing is that we ensure that the burden of recovery is shared equitably, each of us according to our ability. That’s where public scrutiny of the government’s proposed recovery plans and democratic accountability for the performance of those plans will be essential. We could yet turn the present crisis into an extension of social justice – if we can be at all *rs*d – just as our grandparents did in 1945.

  5. Jack Collatin says:

    Lovely piece, sir.
    As you observe the EU is not an issue now. The fascist right wing English Oligarchy can do as it will, and hang the consequences.
    ‘Lord’ David Frost has unilaterally extended the customs easements between NI and GB without consulting the EU. That’ll end well.
    The UK has brokered a deal to import Brazilian steroid beef to the UK, and the UK IM means that Scotland is powerless to prevent Brazilian cheap burgers edging our Scots beef from Tesco’s Butcher’s Apron bedecked shelves.
    500,000 patients in SE England GP Practices have been sold off to a US Health conglomerate; and not a word of protest from Starmer and the New Socialists.

    I prefer Joyce to Becket..
    ““Sniffer of carrion, premature gravedigger, seeker of the nest of evil in the bosom of a good word, you, who sleep at our vigil and fast for our feast, you with your dislocated reason, have cutely foretold, a jophet in your own absence, by blind poring upon your many scalds and burns and blisters, impetiginous sore and pustules, by the auspices of that raven cloud, your shade, and by the auguries of rooks in parlament, death with every disaster, the dynamatisation of colleagues, the reducing of records to ashes, the levelling of all customs by blazes, ”

    Finnegan’s Wake anguishes over the Irish Brit functionaries, but resonates today in Scotland, England’s Golden Goose Final Colony.
    We are not waiting for Godot any more.

  6. Tom Ultuous says:

    Nail on the head George. Despite the Good Law’s success in court how often do you hear of the tory chumocracy? Compare that with the Scottish public being “ripped off” for 6p a head because Nicola Sturgeon didn’t heed legal advice from the incompetent crown office who are in the process of paying 100 million compensation as a result of their failed sevco prosecutions.

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