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