22 days of dither and delay on coronavirus that cost thousands of British lives

Scientists, politicians, academics and advisers reveal the inside story of ministers’ desperate battle with the virus before the country finally locked down

The Sunday Times

There is a simple mathematical truth that would have caused alarm about the coronavirus pandemic if it had been more fully appreciated when it was first flagged up in reports from China in late January. The number of people infected appeared to double in as little as three days. The maths was remorseless. It meant one case would become eight in nine days, and after 21 it would be 128. In less than nine weeks, one case could infect a million people.

So time was already running out for Britain when, amid the last of the late February storms, Boris Johnson returned from his working holiday at the state-owned Chevening residence to face opposition accusations that he was a “part-time” prime minister.

On Monday, March 2, the virus had been in the country for almost five weeks and was multiplying fast. This was an important day as Johnson had decided to get a grip on the crisis by doing something he had notably failed to do since it started. “I have just chaired a Cobra meeting on coronavirus,” he declared in a video message to the nation.

Standing in front of a Downing Street bookcase full of leather-bound volumes, the prime minister warned that the virus was likely to become a more significant problem and added “this country is very, very, well prepared . . . we’ve got fantastic testing systems, amazing surveillance of the spread of disease”. Widespread testing and contact tracing would, however, be abandoned in just over a week.

Johnson had agreed an “action plan” with his fellow members of the Cobra emergency committee that morning but new measures, to prevent the spread of the virus, would be introduced later only if needed. It would be a notable feature of the prime minister’s televised press briefings over the next crucial three weeks until lockdown that key actions would be deferred until future dates. Meanwhile, the virus was spreading rapidly.

Inexplicably, the final sentence of the March 2 video message has been lopped off the version posted on the prime ministerial Twitter page. It was: “I wish to stress that, at the moment, it’s very important that people consider that they should, as far as possible, go about business as usual.”

Having delivered Brexit on January 31, Downing Street was keen to foster a mood of buoyancy and optimism as the nation began its new future of self-determination. In the following days, Johnson initially epitomised the upbeat spirit, shaking hands and attending the rugby at Twickenham, in a clear signal that life should go on despite the virus.

The prime minister and Carrie Symonds, his partner, watched England play Wales at Twickenham
The prime minister and Carrie Symonds, his partner, watched England play Wales at Twickenham. FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA


Life did go on as usual at the beginning of March. The bars and trains remained packed and mass sporting events were attended as normal. Many people are likely to have paid with their lives for commuting on packed trains, drinking in pubs and attending events such as the Cheltenham Festival during this period.

Across the world, many governments would be grappling with the fast-moving crisis and few would emerge from the coming months without mistakes. In Britain, the government’s response was to replace “Let’s get Brexit done” with a new mantra: “We’re following the science”. But was that what the decision-making team — Johnson, key advisers such as Dominic Cummings, and ministers, including the health secretary Matt Hancock, as well as the chief scientific and medical advisers — were actually doing?

The big lockdown gamble
An Insight investigation has talked to scientists, politicians, academics, emergency planners and advisers to Downing Street about the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis in the three weeks from March 2.

We found that a key government committee was informed at the beginning of the month by its two top modelling teams that Britain was facing a catastrophic loss of life without drastic action. By then, however, any hope of containing the virus through contact tracing had fallen through because the government had failed to adequately increase its testing capacity in January and February.

Caught in the headlights, the government was intent on pursuing a “contain” and “delay” policy of allowing the virus to spread through the population, with the intention of shielding the vulnerable and elderly and introducing new measures to slow the rate down at some future point when it looked as if the NHS might be overwhelmed.

This approach was based on the flu model, which was designed to cope with an infection that was very infectious in a similar way to the coronavirus but less deadly. In the Far East, countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore based their approach on lessons learnt combating the Sars crisis of 2003 and other viral outbreaks that emerged from China. They were better prepared to move fast, particularly in their use of tests and tracing to restrict the spread.

South Korean soldiers disinfect Dongdaegu railway station
South Korean soldiers disinfect Dongdaegu railway station

In the UK it was hoped that antibody resistance would be built up in the population — herd immunity — in order to avoid a second outbreak later in the year that might be even worse. This, however,was a big gamble as there was no clear evidence that people who had suffered the virus would have lasting antibody protection. Despite using the term at the time, the government denies it had a policy of herd immunity.

The government pursued its contain and delay strategy through the first two weeks of March despite the strong warnings from its two main modelling teams that it could lead to a catastrophic number of people being killed by the virus. The teams from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) both concluded separately that if the mitigation measures under the delay strategy were followed, it could result in about 250,000 deaths. They delivered papers detailing those findings to a meeting of Sage, the scientific advisory group for emergencies, on March 3 attended by government officials.

It was only in the middle weekend of March that the key decision makers would fully engage with the fact that their mitigation measures risked a death sentence for a quarter of a million people and something far tougher was required.

What is more, this realisation came only after the academic teams took it upon themselves to model a lockdown as the only solution that could avoid overwhelming the NHS — showing how deaths could be kept to the tens of thousands.

There was a key meeting of the prime minister’s close team on the morning of Saturday, March 14, after the modellers’ new projections on the lockdown solution had been delivered. By this point European countries were hastily introducing lockdowns and there was growing support among Johnson’s team for the move.

After being initially hostile to the idea, the prime minister put his libertarian instincts to one side and agreed in principle that a lockdown would be necessary. However, rather than locking down immediately, there was a further nine-day delay as he deliberated over how and when a lockdown should be introduced.

1 Daily covid rates

That prevarication proved, for some, to be fatal. New back-dated modelling assessing the historic spread of the disease — which is published for the first time today — estimates the number of people infected in the UK was indeed doubling every three days during late February and early March, just as some of the initial reports from China in late January had suggested they might.

The work, produced jointly by an Imperial College London team led by Samir Bhatt and Oxford University, suggests that on March 3 — the day the government committee gave the warning about the dire consequences of a mitigation approach — there were about 14,000 infections in the UK. Such was the speed of the spread of the virus that 200,000 people were estimated to be infected by the time the government began to change its mind about its policy on Saturday, March 14.

The last nine days while Johnson wrestled over the decision on when and how to go for lockdown were particularly brutal. By the time the lockdown was announced on Monday, March 23, such large numbers were doubling over such a short period that infections are estimated to have soared to 1.5 million.

According to the data, no other large European country allowed infections to sky-rocket to such a high level before finally deciding to go into lockdown. Those 20 days of government delay are the single most important reason why the UK has the second highest number of deaths from the coronavirus in the world.

Getting in front of the virus
A few hours before Johnson attended Cobra on March 2 another leader was holding her own press conference on the response to the coronavirus crisis on the side of the world where the sun rises first.

With slow precision Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand prime minister, read out a raft of measures her small island nation was taking to protect health and business because “the precautionary approach is best”.

Travel from China had already been banned for a month and 8,000 New Zealand nationals returning home from the area and Iran had been self-isolating for two weeks. That day Ardern said travellers from Italy and South Korea would be required to self-isolate for two weeks. “It is too early to say what the impact will be, but regardless, we are getting in front of this issue,” she added.

Jacinda Ardern locked down New Zealand hard and early
Jacinda Ardern locked down New Zealand hard and early


The early intervention would prove highly successful and enabled New Zealand to start to return to normality last month after a relatively short lockdown with just over 1,500 cases and 21 deaths.

By contrast, the island of Britain was in a far more exposed position than New Zealand as an international air hub with 23.7 million people arriving in the UK in the first three months of the year.

So it was perhaps all the more surprising that so little had been done in the five weeks before March to prepare the UK for a pandemic while our borders were kept open, despite warnings from scientists.

A statement on March 2 by the government’s scientific pandemic influenza (SPI) group on modelling had advised that it was “almost certain” there would be sustained transmission of the coronavirus in the UK and it was “highly likely” to be already happening. It estimated that the time taken for cases to double was about four to six days — a rate that had been revised downwards from initial estimates in January on the spread of the disease in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak is thought to have begun.

However, the recent research from Imperial College London and Oxford University has been able to make more accurate estimates by using the dates when people died from the virus to look back and work out the likely rates of infection in the past. This appears to confirm that infections were in fact doubling every three days and an estimated 11,000 people were already infected on March 2 — and could soon become millions.

While the government’s modelling committee may have underestimated the speed of the spread of the virus, it was not blind to the scale of the problem faced in Britain. It warned of a worst case scenario of 80% of the population becoming infected.

The Cobra plan
Given the grim predictions and the near-certainty of sustained transmission, it might have been expected that the prime minister would announce concrete and immediate steps when he returned back to Downing Street via the network of corridors from committee room B, where he had attended his first Cobra meeting on the crisis.

But the action plan that emerged from the meeting amounted to a series of measures that would only be taken at some future date to halt the spread of the disease. It puzzled Lord Kerslake, who would have been responsible for implementing such a plan when he was the head of the civil service under David Cameron. “If ministers believe that emergency measures will be necessary, they should act now,” he told The Guardian that day, adding that the only reason for holding back was if “you don’t believe they are necessary in the end”.

The full details of the government’s action plan were set out in a lengthy document from the Department of Health and Social Care on March 3 that introduced its “contain, delay, research, mitigate” strategy. It notes ominously that “if the disease becomes established in the UK . . . it may be that widespread exposure in the UK is inevitable”.

Officially, the country was still in the “contain” phase in which the contacts of anyone who had contracted the virus would be tracked down and tested. But that battle had already been lost. Such was the rapid spread of the virus that it had almost certainly reached one of Johnson’s own ministers, Nadine Dorries, the health minister, who would start to go down with symptoms two days later.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer

Given that widespread exposure appeared highly likely, it would have been possible to have moved on swiftly to the delay strategies outlined in the document, which included: “school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large-scale gatherings”. But, according to the document, the government was planning to weigh up the trade-off between the “social and economic impact” of such measures and “keeping people safe.” It decided to wait. And wait.

True to form, the prime minister was in a characteristically upbeat mood when he presented the action plan at the first of his daily press conferences on March 3 flanked by two doctors who were to become household names. Likeable, earnest and articulate Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, would be used as the government’s human proof that it was “following the science”.

Johnson told the journalists sitting shoulder to shoulder in the wood-panelled 9 Downing Street room that the coronavirus was “overwhelmingly a disease that is moderate in its effects” before repeating his misplaced faith in the UK’s testing and surveillance systems. “This country is going to get through coronavirus, no doubt at all and get through it in good shape,” he added.

The prime minister said the plan was not a list of actions the government “will do” but rather it was what it “could do at the right time”. He said: “Our plan means we are committed to doing everything possible based on the advice of our world leading scientific experts to prepare for all eventualities.”

Sage advice on modelling
It has now emerged that earlier that same day some of those world-leading scientists had presented data to a meeting of the Sage advisory group showing the alarming consequences of the mitigation measures being proposed by the government.

The renowned pandemic modelling teams from Imperial College London and LSHTM had been asked to assess the effects of strategies to mitigate the virus such as social distancing, school closures, whole household isolation and banning mass gatherings. Their findings were a stark warning to the government about the policy it was pursuing.

If there were no interventions then there could be as many 500,000 deaths. But the figures were still frightening when they factored in the mitigation measures. The teams both found that no matter how they modelled the measures — singly or in combination — the death toll was huge: more than 200,000 could lose their lives in the LSHTM calculation, and 250,000 according to Imperial.

Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London
Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London

A source close to the two teams said Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial, and Professor John Edmunds of LSHTM — who had both attended Sage meetings at the time — became increasingly concerned after the figures had been calculated. It seemed that all the scenarios the teams were asked to model were insufficiently draconian to avert a disaster. “We looked at the mitigation strategies one by one and in combination and we realised that they would still likely result in large numbers of deaths,” said Edmunds.

However, the source said the government did not even ask the teams to model whether a lockdown might be the solution and instead only commissioned them to look at increasingly finer-grained versions of mitigation in early March. “I think a sense of, ‘It can’t really be that bad’ was important in explaining the delay,” said the source. “The [modellers’] central estimates of severity were viewed as a ‘reasonable worst case’ by the government — not the most likely scenario. It took them a while to be convinced.”

The source added: “I think an overarching concern — and why so much time was spent looking at alternatives involving mitigation and shielding — was that everyone, especially Chris Whitty, Patrick Vallance and the policy people, knew what the economic and social costs of lockdown would be.”

The modellers would later take matters into their own hands.

UK is open for business
In the first week of March the number of officially confirmed cases rose significantly from 36 to 206. By the weekend of Saturday, March 7, the scale of the catastrophe facing the UK and its speed could be seen just a thousand miles away in Italy where cases had risen fivefold to 5,800 and the deaths had increased eightfold to 233 in just six days that week.

There was no clear reason to assume the UK would escape the pandemic more lightly than Italy. That weekend the Ireland versus Italy Six Nations rugby match in Dublin was called off because of fears that it might help spread the virus. Across the UK, hundreds of thousands of people attended sports events as usual.

On Sunday, March 8, France banned public gatherings of more than 1,000 people but that same day thousands of French fans were allowed to mingle in the 67,000 crowd at Murrayfield, Edinburgh, for their team’s Six Nations game with Scotland.

The prime minister made his own statement the previous day about Britain being open for business by joining the 81,000-strong crowd that watched England beat Wales at Twickenham.

Across the world people had been replacing handshakes with awkward waves or the knocking of elbows in an attempt to limit the spread of the infection. In the UK the SPI behavioural group, which reports to Sage, the key committee informing the political decision makers, made clear recommendations that the “Government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene.”

But Johnson was determined to carry on as normal. “I’m shaking hands,” he had told the March 3 press conference on the day the behavioural group’s guidance came out. “I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were a few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know.”

Phillip Schofield asked the prime minister whether he had washed his hands
Phillip Schofield asked the prime minister whether he had washed his hands

A couple of days later during an appearance on ITV’s This Morning he bounded over to Phillip Schofield and seized his hand when the presenter had deliberately kept his arms by his side. Schofield pointedly inquired whether Johnson had washed his hands before grabbing him.

Unrepentant, Johnson then posted on Twitter a video of himself eagerly shaking hands with five female rugby players at Twickenham on Saturday, March 7. It was curious behaviour bearing in mind Johnson’s repeated statements that he and the government were following the advice of the scientists on the crisis.

A source who was advising Downing Street at the time said: “The handshake — you can’t minimise how important that is. He was the ultimate example of somebody saying, ‘This is a mild illness, the scientists are overstating this.’”

Gunmetal skies at Cheltenham
Three days later the gunmetal skies and threat of drizzle did little to damp the ardour of the horse-racing enthusiasts as more than 60,000 people flocked to the opening of the four-day Cheltenham festival on the morning of Tuesday, March 10.

The Cheltenham festival had once been cancelled for foot and mouth, a livestock disease, but it was not going to stop for the coronavirus, especially with the prime minister sending out messages that Britain was open as usual. On the opening day of the event, Ian Renton, the festival’s director, sent a letter to concerned local councillors setting out the reasons for going ahead.

It said: “As with events from England v Wales attended by the prime minister at Twickenham on Saturday to 10 Premier League games around the country this weekend, the government guidance is for the business of the country to continue as usual while ensuring we adhere to and promote the latest public health advice.”

Gloucestershire registered a spike in hospital death rates in the weeks after the Cheltenham Festival
Gloucestershire registered a spike in hospital death rates in the weeks after the Cheltenham Festival


Bottles of hand sanitiser were placed in the washrooms and around the racecourse for the crowds who mingled and pressed together in the enclosures drinking and eating. One of those people was Jules Annan, a 55-year-old freelance photographer, who worked on all four days taking photographs of celebrities, tycoons and royals who had joined the throng. Ten days later he found himself struggling for breath as he was rushed to Cheltenham General Hospital and placed on oxygen. “My lungs basically gave up,” he said. “I knew I was in a bad way.”

He cannot be certain about how he became infected with the virus, which he eventually shook off, but he believes he may have become infected during the races. “There was a guy in the bed opposite me at the hospital who was at the races too and thinks he got it there.”

Gloucestershire would later experience a spike in hospital death rates and the effects of the event may have spread across the country. Two racing enthusiasts who attended the festival died on the same day at the end of March.

They were Paul Townend, 61, a racehorse owner from Stratford-upon-Avon, who had his ventilator switched off in Warwick Hospital, and David Hodgkiss, a 71-year-old chief executive of a steelmaking firm and chairman of Lancashire cricket club, from Cumbria.

Townend’s widow, Geraldine, blames her husband’s death on the government’s failure to bring in the lockdown earlier. “I don’t know why we were so late?” she said. “Other countries were in lockdown well before us. The writing was on the wall.”

One of the last sporting fixtures played this year was on March 11, when 3,000 fans came over from Spain to watch Liverpool play Atlético Madrid in the Champions League. According to the Imperial College London and Oxford University estimates, Spain had 640,000 infections at the time compared with 100,000 in Britain, although it was just a week ahead in terms of the spread of the virus such was its unchecked growth across the UK during that period.

Edge Health, which analyses health data for the NHS, carried out modelling that estimated that the match and the Cheltenham festival are linked to 41 and 37 additional deaths respectively at nearby hospitals between 25 and 35 days later, compared with similar hospital trusts that were used as a control. And that was just the local hospitals.

Late lockdown

The herd immunity problem

Back in London on the day before the Cheltenham festival began, the chief scientist Vallance had been put forward to express the scientific view that mass gatherings were not a big problem. Vallance, who had left a £780,000-a-year job in the pharmaceutical industry a year before to take the job advising ministers, explained that gatherings “actually don’t make much difference”.

He said: “There’s only a certain number of people you can infect. So, one person in a 70,000-seater stadium is not going to infect the stadium. They will infect potentially a few people they’ve got very close contact with. That’s true in any setting: in the house, in a church, in a restaurant.”

Sir David King, one of Vallance’s predecessors as chief scientific adviser and a critic of the current administration, is scathing about the reasoning on mass gatherings. His son was at the Cheltenham festival and later suffered coronavirus symptoms, which took him three weeks to recover from.

King said: “If you’ve ever been to a race meeting or football match, you would normally meet your friends in a pub beforehand, then you often need to get a train — there are long queues and big crowds. Anyone who has attended any of these events knows you are in contact with a very large number of people.

“But worse than that the people at these football matches and horse races come from all over the country and return to all over the country. It’s the ideal way to spread the virus. My only sensible interpretation is that is what you would advise if you were aiming for herd immunity.”

The news from the government was becoming increasingly gloomy that Monday, March 9. After chairing another Cobra meeting, Johnson had been forced to announce that attempts to contain the virus were unlikely to succeed on their own.

Johnson said measures would inevitably have to be introduced to delay the spread of the virus and he would follow the scientific advice and act when the time was judged to be right. Whitty told journalists that the first of those measures — asking anyone with respiratory symptoms or a fever to self-isolate — would be the next step, but not for another 10 to 14 days.

The delays and the toleration of mass gatherings in a way fitted with the same policy. There was a view within the team advising the government that once contact tracing had failed to contain the outbreak then a burgeoning number of cases was inevitable — even desirable.

The plan — which the modellers had already estimated would cause more than 200,000 deaths — was to allow the virus to infect large parts of the population, while shielding the old and the vulnerable, and bringing in measures to slow down the rate of infection when it looked as if the numbers of cases might overwhelm the NHS.

The thinking behind this approach was that any attempt to shut down the virus completely would have repercussions later, with a likely second outbreak that might cause an even greater death toll in the autumn and winter, as insufficient numbers of people would have acquired immunity to the virus. This was the implicit herd immunity aspect of the policy that became so controversial when it became explicit as the second week of March wore on.

Vallance told the Monday press conference: “What you can’t do is suppress this thing completely and what you shouldn’t do is suppress this thing completely because all that happens is that this thing pops up later in the year when the NHS is in a more vulnerable stage in the winter.”

A source who was advising Downing Street at the time said that herd immunity was central to the government’s plans in late February and early March. “There was always this message coming straight down of, ‘We’ve all got to get it,’” the source said. “And I remember having a conversation about how, ‘I don’t like this and this chicken pox party thing.’ In February and March it was like, we’ve all got to get it at some point and that was just a sort of mantra.”

But patience was running out with the government’s delays and inaction. On Wednesday, March 11, Anthony Costello, professor of global health at University College London and a former World Health Organisation director, tweeted what many experts were thinking.

“We’re simply not doing enough now. We shd [sic] ban mass gatherings, close parliaments, alert all health workers about protective equipment and hygiene, close schools/colleges, promote home working wherever possible, and protect workers in the gig economy. Every day of delay will kill.”

On March 12, Johnson told the nation that “many more families are going to lose loved ones”
On March 12, Johnson told the nation that “many more families are going to lose loved ones” SIMON DAWSON


On Thursday, March 12, there was a deepened gravity in the prime minister’s voice when, standing in front of two Union Jack flags, he told the nation: “This is the worst public health crisis for a generation . . . I must level with you, level with the British public — more families, many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Only nine days earlier he had described the virus as a “moderate illness”. But by that Thursday the number of confirmed cases had jumped from 51 on March 3 to 596 and there had been 10 deaths. The contain strategy had not worked and contact tracing was abandoned — as the failure to increase testing capacity during previous weeks made it impossible.

By then it would have been futile anyway because the Imperial and Oxford back-modelling estimates predict by that day 130,000 people had caught the virus. This suggests that the contact testing programme had only picked up 0.5% of the infections when it was finally discarded.

The government had clearly misread the speed of the virus’ acceleration. So the first of the mitigation measures was finally brought in that day when people were told to self-isolate at home if they had symptoms. Just three days before, Whitty had said this measure would be introduced in 10 to 14 days.

Two other measures would also be brought in — the banning of mass gatherings and isolation of whole households if one person had symptoms — but again the government stressed these would be delayed to the “right time” in the future.

Vallance and Whitty explained the staged timing by saying people might tire of such social distancing measures if they were brought in too early and lasted a long time. “If people go too early they become very fatigued. This is going to be a long haul. It is very important we don’t start things in advance of need,” Whitty said.

The newspapers the next morning, Friday the 13th, were withering. “Johnson’s response has not been to lock down entire cities or even the whole country as China, South Korea and Italy have done. He has not ordered the closure of schools, as Ireland and Denmark did yesterday. Nor has he ordered the cancellation of large public events, as France and even Scotland has done,” complained The Times leader.

“Instead, his response was to announce that Britain would stop testing all but those exhibiting the most severe symptoms of the virus . . . This is a remarkable gamble by Mr Johnson, albeit one that the government insists is informed by science.”

That morning Vallance went on Radio 4’s Today programme and dug an even deeper hole for his colleagues by mentioning the phrase the spin doctors did not want the public to hear. The government’s aim, he said, was to suppress the virus but not completely and “to build up some degree of herd immunity” while protecting the vulnerable. Later, on Sky News, he said that herd immunity would require 60% of the population to contract the virus.

That would be 40 million people — of whom 1% were likely to die, based on events in China and Italy. It was quite a gamble as it had not yet even been established whether people would develop long-running antibody resistance after contracting the virus.

The solution
The days were ticking by quickly. Despite repeated assertions by the government it was following the scientific advice, there was increasing concern among its two university modelling teams that their warnings were not being heeded that the death toll would still be horrendous even if the mitigation measures were introduced.

They took matters into their own hands and, without being commissioned to do so, began crunching the numbers on a lockdown from their campuses in London. The first results were contained in a LSHTM study — co-authored by Edmunds and his colleague Nicholas Davies. This was communicated to the government’s advisory modelling committee on Wednesday, March 11, according to Davies. Modellers at Edinburgh University, led by Professor Mark Woolhouse, confirmed the findings.

The report advised that the death rate could be drastically cut with more severe measures to suppress the virus. It predicted that intermittent periods of intensive lockdown-type measures would prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

Ferguson and his team at Imperial drew similar conclusions that week in an equally devastating report. The early results of that work were discussed in Sage that week and provided to the government that weekend. A draft was also sent to the White House as it predicted up to 1.2 million deaths in America under a mitigation strategy.

The team estimated that the number of UK deaths could be cut to about 30,000 with a series of lockdowns over a two-year period, whereas the government’s preferred mitigation measures could allow hundreds of thousands of deaths. The two reports were the beginning of the end for the government’s strategy.

World closes down
The world was closing down by Saturday, March 14. France said it was shutting non-essential public locations, Spain went into lockdown that evening, America had announced a ban on flights from the UK and the Italians were already holding impromptu concerts from their balconies after the whole country had been confined to their homes since Tuesday.

In the UK many people had given up waiting for the government to take action and were already taking matters into their own hands. Firms were encouraging employees to work from home, and suddenly that Saturday’s sporting fixture list was looking threadbare as the leagues cancelled games of their own volition despite the huge losses in revenues.

The government’s strategy was in shreds: ripped apart by its own modelling scientists and looking creepily Darwinian after the unfortunate introduction of the words “herd immunity”. More than 200 scientists and academics signed a letter condemning the delay policy and saying thousands of lives could be saved by introducing stricter social distancing measures immediately.

These were the problems confronting Johnson when he summoned a meeting of his inner team at 9.15am that Saturday morning. By then it is understood that his most influential adviser Cummings had gone through a “Domoscene conversion” to being a strong advocate of the kind of suppression strategy that would lead to lockdown.

A source who attended Cobra meetings at the time said: “The libertarian in Boris didn’t want lockdown.” However, Johnson is said to have been won over at the meeting because of the seriousness of the threat, and a decision was made in principle to lock down Britain. He told those around him “we need to be taking all measures necessary”.

Italy during lockdown: the deserted Piazza Duomo in Milan
Italy during lockdown: the deserted Piazza Duomo in Milan


But the key issues of how and when to introduce a lockdown would not be resolved for another nine days. A senior Tory source said Johnson “bottled” lockdown during the following week because of concerns about the economy.

The failure to seize the initiative and go into lockdown at that point was a decision that cost many lives. After deliberating over the weekend, the government waited until the evening of Monday March 16 to introduce a package of advisory measures. People were told to work from home if possible, avoid pubs and restaurants and self-isolate at home if someone in their household was ill.

Even scientists on the government’s own advisory committees were alarmed by the delays in introducing more stringent measures. Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the government’s Nervtag (new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group) committee said: “Many of us on the scientific advisory committees were quite keen that action should be taken a couple of weeks before action actually was taken.”

“I think that critical period of delay made the big difference to the peak numbers, both of hospitalisations and of deaths. I think everyone would accept now in retrospect that if we’d gone for lockdown a couple of weeks earlier that would have greatly reduced the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths.”

Every day was vital now as the UK already had an estimated 320,000 infections on March 16, according to the Imperial and Oxford back-dated modelling, and it would double again almost every three days despite the advisory measures which were introduced.

Final days to lockdown
The final week before lockdown was played out in slow motion. There had been a fundamental pivot in government policy towards more draconian actions but the prime minister is said to have still been uncomfortable with the the idea of a full legally enforced shutdown which many of his advisers now saw as an unfortunate necessity.

It was to be a week of more delays and more drip feed measures. The big announcement on Wednesday was that finally schools would be closed indefinitely but that would not take place until Friday afternoon.

The measures to close cafés, pubs, bars, clubs, restaurants, gyms, leisure centres, nightclubs, theatres and cinemas would not take effect until midnight that evening. Isolation to protect the 1.5 million people identified as extremely vulnerable as a result of existing conditions would not be announced until Sunday, March 22.

While many people were already working from home and starting to stand their distance from others in social situations, there were reports that many commuter buses and trains were still packed in central London, which had more than a third of known cases. Google data tracking people’s movements suggests the use of public transport was down by only a third across the UK by Wednesday March 18. It was clear not everyone was following the government’s advice.

A passenger on the London Underground takes precautions in the days before lockdown GABRIELLE FONSECA JOHNSON

Having backed the government’s earlier strategy, Cummings was said to now be convinced it wouldn’t work and was advocating a lockdown, starting with restricting traffic in and out of London. Military chiefs are said to have been put on notice that their troops might be needed to enforce a lockdown in the capital starting at midnight on Saturday.

A government insider said the prime minister looked “haunted” as he wrestled with the big decision of what to do next. His attempts at jollity had backfired at the beginning of the week when he described the effort to equip the NHS with more ventilators to meet the coming blizzard of respiratory illnesses as “operation last gasp”.

The gearing up of the NHS had one particularly ill-thought-out and reckless consequence. On Thursday, March 19, the health department announced 15,000 people should be discharged from hospitals into the community and care homes to free up beds for coronavirus patients. This was without a mandatory requirement that they be tested for the virus.

On Friday, March 20, Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, reassured the country that there was a “perfectly adequate supply of PPE [personal protective equipment] for care workers and any supply pressures have been “completely resolved.” The lack of PPE and the failure to protect the elderly in care homes would shortly become the next national scandal to haunt the government and expose its lack of planning since January.

At the Downing Street press conference, Harries advised people to stay two metres apart during walks while standing at a lectern less than a metre from the prime minister.

By that day, the number of infections had doubled during the midweek to an estimated 790,000, according to the Imperial and Oxford data. Despite the growing dangers, many people popped out for a last drink before the pubs shut overnight.

The clement spring weather that weekend brought thousands of people out into parks and open spaces in the new world where they could no longer congregate in sports clubs, pubs or restaurants.

Johnson skipped the daily press briefing on Saturday, March 21 and took a break with his fiancée Carrie Symonds in the prime minister’s second home at Chequers. He returned the following day to host a press conference where he made the same mistake as Harries — standing a metre away from his colleagues while imploring the nation to stay two metres apart.

Inside Downing Street there was a growing realisation Britain was now on a trajectory to be “Italy, at least” in terms of cases and fatalities, according to a source advising the top team. The final straws were the crowds out in the fresh air on Mothering Sunday and the still considerable commuter traffic on Monday morning with half of workers still travelling to their offices. Johnson was forced to finally announce the lockdown that evening.

When the new measures came in on the evening of Monday, March 23, the infections had almost doubled again since the previous Friday and there were an estimated 1.5 million across the UK, according to Imperial and Oxford’s new data. Close to 1.2 million of those infections had happened since Johnson resisted calls to lockdown on Monday March 16.

An analysis of the data shows the lockdown swiftly reduced the spread of the virus but was introduced so late that Britain had a higher number of infections than every other major European country at the time they took the same emergency measures. For example, Italy had an estimated 1.2 million at its lockdown on March 10 and Germany, which locked down a day earlier than than the UK on March 22, is estimated to have had just 270,000 infections.

Sir David King said the lockdown delay was “grossly negligent”. “The fact they were short of PPE, the fact they were short of testing equipment. The response of the government has not just been tardy. It has been totally disrespectful of British lives,” he said. “We created an unmanageable situation.”

There had been too much delay. The sheer number of people who had been allowed to become infected meant the country was riddled with the virus and the only defence was the workers of the NHS who had been left critically short of testing and protective equipment.

To date, 36,675 people in Britain have been confirmed as having died from the virus, including more than 300 NHS staff and care workers. Within four days of lockdown the infection had found its way to the very top of government when the prime minister himself tested positive for the coronavirus.

Last night a government spokesperson said: “Our strategy has been designed at all times to protect our NHS and save lives. Our response has ensured that the NHS can provide the best care possible for people who become ill, enabled hospitals to maintain essential services and ensured ongoing support for people ill in the community.

“It has been vital through this global pandemic to make interventions which the public can feasibly adopt in sufficient numbers over long periods. The Government has been very clear that herd immunity has never been our policy or goal.”

Sport and socialising as the virus spread
March 2
Estimated daily new infections: 2,405
Boris Johnson says the UK is “very, very well prepared” after chairing his first Cobra meeting on the coronavirus

March 3

Top scientific modellers warn the government that up to 250,000 people may die without drastic action to stop the virus spreading

March 4


Officials announce the biggest one-day leap in confirmed Covid-19 cases to 87

March 5


Johnson appears on ITV’s This Morning, ignoring scientific advice by shaking hands with Phillip Schofield. First UK death announced

March 6

Nadine Dorries, the health minister, goes into self-isolation after being struck with Covid-19 symptoms

March 7

Ireland cancels its Six Nations rugby match with Italy in Dublin, but Johnson attends the England v Wales match at Twickenham

March 8


France bans gatherings of more than 1,000 people. However, French rugby fans travel to Edinburgh to watch their team play Scotland

March 9

Ireland bans St Patrick’s Day parades. Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, claims mass gatherings “actually don’t make much difference” to the spread of the disease

March 10

60,000 punters attend the opening day of the four-day Cheltenham horse-racing festival. Italy, meanwhile, goes into lockdown

March 11

3,000 football fans from Spain — where matches are being played behind closed doors — travel to Anfield to watch Liverpool v Atlético Madrid in the Champions League

March 12

With 10 UK deaths so far, Johnson admits this is “the worst public health crisis for a generation . . . many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”

March 13

Vallance tells broadcasters that the government’s strategy had in part been to “build up some degree of herd immunity”

March 14

France and Spain announce draconian restrictions on public movements. Johnson’s team also begins to consider tougher measures

March 15

Ireland orders all pubs, bars and hotels to close. In Cardiff, the Stereophonics play to a packed arena for the second night in a row

March 16

The prime minister advises Britons to work from home if possible, avoid restaurants and bars, and to self-isolate if someone in their home is ill

March 17

Vallance tells MPs that if deaths can be limited to 20,000 or under it would be “a good outcome”

March 18
101, 854

The government announces the indefinite closure of all schools in two days’ time

March 19

Hospitals are told to discharge patients to care homes and into the community to free up NHS beds. No mandatory virus testing is required

March 20

All pubs, restaurants, cinemas and gyms are ordered to shut by midnight

March 21

Johnson visits his Chequers retreat with partner Carrie Symonds as the estimated number of infections edges to one million

March 22

1.5 million of the country’s most vulnerable people are told to self-isolate for at least three months to protect themselves

March 23

Johnson finally goes on air to announce a full UK lockdown

Jacob Rees-Mogg: the truth behind the moggology

Slide3For those of us of a certain age, Dallas was compulsive weekly viewing in the 1970s & 80s. J.R. Ewing, one of the show’s main protagonists was portrayed as a shallow, vain, covetous, egocentric, manipulative and amoral Texas oilman with psychopathic tendencies.

He was an utterly compelling TV villain. Few of us will have forgotten the final episode of the 1980 series called “A House Divided”, a real cliff-hanger where JR very nearly got his richly deserved comeuppance.

Fast-forward forty years to meet a real-life, bane of our modern times, Jacob Rees-Mogg. Jokingly referred to as the “MP for the eighteenth century”, he is an old school tie and waistcoat wearing, top hat sporting, very socially & politically conservative coxcomb – an appropriately archaic epithet some may say.Slide5

He was sent to live among us as a reminder of an earlier epoch when the UK was the only global superpower. In dress, manner and speech, he is the present-day embodiment of a former, grander, more class-conscious, less equal, more deferential, Imperial Age.

The halcyon era of the Pax Britannica when flying the Union Jack, the Royal Navy’s gunboats roamed the world’s oceans unchecked, keeping the sea lanes safe, so that our merchant adventurers could trade freely with Johnny Foreigner.

Rees-Mogg is part struggling investment management tyro, part EU-fixated right-wing Tory MP, and part putative high priest of Brexit.

Exuding self-confidence, with more than a whiff of arrogance about him, and apparently unencumbered by self-doubt or any form of introspection, he is the archetypal highly polished product of Eton College, one the UK’s most notorious public schools.

The moggology which has developed around him imputes great business savvy, superlative investment competence and enormous wisdom. This myth unfortunately does not stand up to closer scrutiny. As we shall see, his reach frequently exceeds his grasp, and he can be prone to making some very poor judgements and decisions.

JR-M can be the typical British, middle class, stuffed-shirt, all-round pain in the arse; boring for Britain as he chunters on and on endlessly about how the UK must leave the EU at the earliest opportunity because it is the spawn of Satan/work of the Devil etc. etc. A slight exaggeration perhaps but not so far from the truth.

On the other hand, he can also be extremely witty, droll and amusing. One of the most scrupulously courteous of men, the JR-M has earned friends and admirers in some of the most unlikely places.

A very entertaining piece appeared on BuzzFeed a couple of years ago, called “Everyone Took the Piss Out of Jacob Rees-Mogg at University.” It rehashed some of the more unusual episodes that took place during JR-M’s three years as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford.

He was first introduced to his fellow students on going up to university via an appearance in a feature entitled “Pushy Fresher IV”, in Cherwell, the University newspaper. It profiled those people considered likely to become “notorious on campus”.

Rees-Mogg, went on to appear fairly frequently on its pages during his time at Oxford. He was far from being a normal run of the mill undergraduate; affecting a rather eccentric, upper class wannabe, young fogeyish persona around the university.  One wag even alleged that he wore double breasted, Saville Row tailored, silk pyjamas in bed.

Slide10One of the more amusing incidents recounted in the BuzzFeed piece recalled an exchange almost thirty years ago between a gamine and rather lovely Yvette Cooper, then President of the Balliol JCR and our hero.

She was campaigning to abolish sub fusc, the expensive formal gown and headgear that undergraduates were (and still are) required to wear, on the very sensible grounds that it put off applicants from state schools. JR-M was reported as suggesting that students should instead be encouraged to wear a “full morning suit”. He went on to say that the mortarboard was a key part of student dress: “I do so like to cycle around Oxford with it on.”

Slide11It seems absolutely certain that J. R-Mogg, during his time at university was a confirmed, attention-seeking contrarian who deliberately and repeatedly ignored that wise old Latin saw – “vir prudens non contra ventum mingit”. Some things just never change…

On graduating from Oxford in 1991 armed with a degree in history (class unknown – there are differing reports. JR-Mogg has not responded to a request for clarification) He headed for the City where he worked initially for Rothchild & Co.

According to a 2016 profile in The Spectator, he was taken under the wing of the legendary investment guru, Nils Taube, spending a couple of years learning the nuts and bolts of his trade at the knee of the Master.

Taube was described in his Daily Telegraph obituary as ‘one of the best [City fund managers], having returned more than 15 per cent a year for the two funds he ran continuously between 1969 and 2006 — a remarkable record’. Apparently, he died of a stroke shortly after being taken ill while working on his Bloomberg terminal at the ripe old age of 79. Surely, an indication of true dedication to his profession?

In contrast, according to a former colleague during his first stint in Hong Kong ‘Jacob was a pedestrian fund manager, always more interested in politics than investment — he never outperformed the index. He was great friends with Chris Patten and was always in and out of Government House, working on his political reputation.’

JR-M returned to Hong Kong in 2003 to manage the Lloyd George Emerging Markets Fund. He stayed for the next five years, surfing or more accurately, failing to surf the global commodities boom and the Asian markets bull-run.

According to an October 2017 Financial Times analysis of his performance, “….the fund trailed the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, the benchmark for many emerging market funds, in four of those five years.”

In his defence, JR-M boasted that under his management, the fund had grown from a “mere $50 million to $5 billion.” This clearly demonstrates that he is an excellent salesman but as the evidence shows, a journeyman stock analyst and picker.

Slide12 Fund managers are normally paid an annual fee calculated according to a fixed percentage of the value of the investment under management. If it grows, the fees increase. If it shrinks or stays the same, fees are adjusted on a pro-rata basis. This approach works very well for the fund manager, not so much for the investor though.

In 2007, J-RM left Hong Kong with two colleagues to found Somerset Capital Management LLP (SCM) of which he owns twenty per cent. The $64k question is: “Was he pushed, or did he jump?”

Was this move the classic reverse double ferret where our hero became FILA-FIHK-TILA – Failed In London And Failed In Hong Kong – Trying In London Again? Rees-Mogg knows but he’s not saying….

SCM was conceived as a specialist Global Emerging Markets investment management firm. Its website states “We believe in co-investment, we cap our funds and we prefer to focus on performance above asset gathering.” It is a challenging sector in which to prosper, but one where it is recognised that in the right hands, high risk can bring high returns.

The company now boasts forty plus staff and has over £6.5 billion under management with impressive offices in London, Singapore and very recently, Dublin. It strenuously denies that the opening of its new office in Ireland is in any way related to the chaos anticipated with the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU due to begin in early 2019.

Fortuitously, Jacob and his wife Helena are well on their way to amassing a sizable family fortune. Just as well really, as the loved-up, uber-fecund couple have six children to privately educate. She is in-line to inherit the £45 million Fitzwilliam estate. When that unhappy day finally arrives, it is thought the golden couple could then be worth well north of £100 million.  Moggwarts

Elected to the House of Commons in 2010, JR-Mogg reportedly works about 30 hours per month for SCM and draws a salary of approximately £180,000 per year for his efforts. Moreover, as a partner, he is entitled to a fifth share of the profits generated (£25.3 million in 2017/18).

This is in addition to his parliamentary earnings of £77,300 per year plus expenses. These amounted to £137,500 in 2016/17 (including £17.54 claimed for printer paper in June 2016).

Which naïve fool said that being an MP should be a full-time job, particularly when the tax-payer seems happy to pay for plenty of hired help to provide cover for those really busy times?

It would seem highly unlikely that there is ever any conflict between his role as an elected representative for North East Somerset where he is expected to speak for his electorate of 65,500 mainly rural constituents, and his activities as the fund manager of several billion ££s when he is legally obliged to act in the best interests of his partners and investors.

Slide13It seems certain that the stout West Country yeomen and women he represents are very content with their Member of Parliament sui generis. They must feel he is well placed to fully understand and empathise with the challenges and difficulties they encounter in their daily lives and then to act accordingly on their behalf.

SCM has over £1.7 billion under management in its only investment vehicles traded on the open market: the Somerset Global Emerging Markets (B) fund and the Somerset Emerging Markets Dividend Growth (A) fund.

Slide14Feel some sympathy though for the investors who may have been convinced by JR-Mogg’s self-confident, high-profile, well-networked, City “homme d’affaires” persona and his languid, rather exaggerated, faux-aristocratic manner and speech. As we shall see, all that glitters may not necessarily yield gold….

SCM’s fund performance over the last year has been dismal. In mid-August 2018, the City Wire Wealth Manager website ranked the SGEM (B) at 232/281 funds (0% 1 yr growth) and the SEMDG (A) at 241/281 funds (-0.7% 1 yr growth). Both funds languish in the bottom quintile of their sector.

This could only be described as a D-minus performance or in the argot of Eton College his old public school, a GTF or a General Total Failure.

Slide6JR-Mogg’s fairly recently departed mentor Nils Taube must be rotating in his grave at a rate of knots as heaven forfend, his erstwhile protégé fails to match key investment indices by a country mile.

Looking at performance over the last five years, the picture is slightly better. However, the performance of both funds is still middling at best.  SGEM (B) comes in at very average 100th/198 funds while SEMDG (A) ranks at 119th/198 position. They have returned a pretty anaemic 43 per cent and 40 per cent respectively in cumulative growth over the same period, placing them squarely in the 3rd and 4th quintiles of their sector.

In contrast, the top performing funds in the same sector have returned a relatively impressive 81 per cent growth over five years and 19 per cent over the last year.

The table compares SCM’s fund performance over one and five years with some of the more important emerging markets where they have reportedly invested their clients’ funds. The absence of any performance data on the SCM website is very surprising indeed in this age of information overload.


The analysis provokes several interesting reflections:

  • Fund management really does involve “earning” lots of money in exchange for very little old rope
  • There are huge fees to be earned by even the most mediocre of investment managers
  • Salesmanship trumps stock analysis & fund management skills every time
  • The pattern of fund under-performance established at Lloyd George Management has continued with SCM LLP
  • The Emperor desperately needs some new clothes before he is rumbled by the markets and investors

For the tech-savvy reader, £1,000 invested in Apple shares five years ago would have yielded 298 per cent growth and would now be worth £3,980.  Investors in Facebook have done even better and £1,000 would have grown to £5,860, representing a stonking 486 per cent increase.

Slide7Rees-Mogg clearly has some very significant failings as an investment manager and guru. Indeed, some cynics might justifiably argue that a troop of half-trained monkeys could have done a better job by picking stocks at random or by simply investing in a low-cost tracker fund.

Why, therefore should anyone take his very confident claims about the supposedly vast benefits to the UK of leaving the EU with any degree of seriousness? The wild assertions he has made as one of the self-anointed “Oracles of Brexit” about this extremely complex issue are impossible to confirm or deny at this stage in the process of our departure.

However, the very underwhelming investment performance of his company provides indisputable evidence of his general fallibility, a lack of sound judgement in important areas and an inability to ensure that even his own business is managed effectively.

Rees-Mogg was recently reported as saying that it could take fifty years for the UK to even begin to reap a Brexit dividend. Not unsurprisingly, SCM which has a fiduciary duty to its investors, has begun briefing against him by warning its clients of the potential significant disruption to the UK economy posed by the hard Brexit so strongly advocated by err, Jacob Rees-Mogg!

Happily, for Jacob, Helena and their six children, they will be well protected from any of the adverse effects of Brexit through the splendid cushion provided by their very substantial family wealth. Would that this was so for the rest of us.

‘It is all very well having those views and being thought to be rather an eccentric but interesting lad when you are eight. But having the same views when you are forty-eight raises, I think, one or two eyebrows.

And, I think, he has allowed himself a bit to be taken over by his own image and caricature.’

Chris Patten – Former Cabinet Minister & Last Governor of Hong Kong

Jacob Rees-Mogg has a real ability to amuse, an attractive propensity not to take himself too seriously and a penchant for genuine self-deprecation. He is also as we have seen, a very successful salesman and marketeer, qualities that he is bringing to the Brexit debate in full.

Great care must be taken to understand the man behind the mask to avoid being dazzled by the superficial glitz of an unusually vivid and interesting personality.

To be charming, witty and charismatic is a very good starting point for any wannabe political leader.

However, other important qualities are also needed if that person is to lead successfully, such as: sound values, balance, vision, integrity, good judgement, reflectiveness, a deep knowledge of history, economics & geo-politics for starters and a degree of humility & introspection.

Many would argue that JR-M possesses the former qualities in spades but that he has a significant deficit in a number of the latter.

Why on earth then should the British people put their future economic well-being and long-term security in jeopardy by giving any credence to the very confident predictions of an over-rated, monomaniac like Jacob Rees-Mogg or equally, the opinions of the relatively small number of ne’er-do-wells on the far right of the Tory Party, in the European “Research” Group and elsewhere who are almost clinically obsessed with Brexit and driven to the point of recklessness and madness by it?

Our country and indeed the world, looks on in astonishment as he battles with Boris Johnson for the role of Macbeth or Macduff in “Brexit” – our 21st century national version of that Shakespearean tragedy. Slide16

One can only hope that the Great British Public will hear and then utterly dismiss the havering of Jacob Rees-Mogg and his absurd, equally attention-seeking, clown-rival, BoJo.

That would deliver for them both, some very richly deserved, just desserts indeed.  Together, they are jointly responsible for trying to create a right royal and very perilous Eton mess for the rest of us.

Returning to the question implied in the title of this essay: how real are Rees-Mogg’s much heralded, oft quoted achievements in business and therefore, how seriously should he be taken on the critical issue of Brexit? The answer is of course: not very much on all counts.

It is frequently said that emptiest vessels make the most noise, and this may well be true of the Brexit debate.  One can look at Donald Trump with amazement and wonder how a man without any redeeming characteristics, and lacking any obvious gifts except a massive capacity to tolerate risk has been able to become rich beyond the dreams of avarice? Clearly, these things are possible.

What is beyond doubt though, is that the good people of the United Kingdom deserve much better leadership in these very challenging times than either Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson is able to provide.

How Would the Dalai Lama have voted in the EU Referendum? (email to my local MP Sarah Wollaston)

Dear Sarah,

A number of us recently spent a convivial evening in a local hostelry discussing the critical issue of – how would the Dalai Lama have voted in the EU referendum?

We concluded after numerous and varied libations that the DL would have found it very difficult to have contemplated lining-up on June 23rd last year with the unruly mob of chancers, dreamers, city boys, obsessives, right wing Tory/UKIP awkward squad members or Jacob Rees-Mogg and his nanny who were leading or involved with the Leave campaign.

We are sure that he would have found their very confident claims, that after a brief period of turmoil and uncertainty in the UK post Brexit, that some nirvana-like, sun-lit economic uplands would be revealed to us all where we could be properly British again and become rich beyond the dreams of avarice, as being a rather facile pipe-dream.

We are convinced that if the Dalai Lama does have a view on Brexit, it would be for the UK to remain in the EU and to cooperate and work through its many problems together with our European cousins. We couldn’t see the tight-arsed, xenophobic, nationalistic, Little Englander approach adopted by the Leave campaign as being one that would be particularly attractive to his Holiness.

We are very happy to share the results of this important debate with you.

Best regards


The Tale of the Stink Bombs on the Bus

In the margins of my recent shock-horror revelation that I have begun an exercise programme, I had a splendid conversation with one of my oldest friends, Steven F. For some inexplicable reason, he was always called Fred at school. I will continue with that convention for the purpose of this little tale.

Fred and I have known each other since we were 8 or 9 and we were pupils at the same schools and in a lot of the same classes right up until our A levels. During our conversation, we revisited the almost forgotten episode of “The Stink Bombs on the Bus” an event that happened about 45 years ago. This was undoubtedly, one of the lowest and most shameful points (amongst many shameful and low points…) of my rather chequered school career. On the basis that it is often said that it is better to talk about these things rather than to hold them in, I would like to share the details of this sorry tale and the conversation with Fred with my friends. Names have been mostly changed to protect the various actors,

Me: Got a few aching muscles now after the training session, but feeling very good overall. As Tommy Carr, our tyrannical Welsh sports master at school used to say in his proper Valleys accent – “Remember boys, no pain, no gain”. And he was right. Shame it’s taken me 45 years to see it….

Fred: Mr Carr tyrannical? I think you might have been a bit luckier than you realised at the time!

Me: I can remember him getting in my face once after I’d “forgotten” my games kit for the 10th time that term and saying “You really hate me don’t you Lewis?” I’m ashamed to admit that I lied through my teeth and replied “No sir, actually I quite like you.” Well that set him off, and he then proceeded to leather my large backside with a stained old off-white dap (pumps for my northern friends and training shoe for everybody else) as we say in South Wales that he kept specifically for that purpose.

Of course that wasn’t the only time I got whacked at school – I fully recognise that I was not the easiest of pupils sometimes…. One particular exploit which resulted in the evacuation of a Red and White double-decker school bus, the rapid deployment of a replacement vehicle and quite a severe caning for me from the Deputy Head still causes me to pause occasionally and think “Did I really do that??”

In all honesty, I don’t think the various thrashings I received at the hands of a variety of teachers did me any lasting harm because I deserved all of them and I was fully prepared to face the music. That said, times have changed for the better and it is absolutely right that teachers and parents are no longer allowed to beat children. But getting back to Mr Carr, I think it fair to say that I probably had a different kind of relationship with him than you did!

Fred: I suppose so. I did actually start to like games when I was about 14, so I suppose I have probably suppressed most of what happened before that.

Me: I vividly remember my first games lesson in September 1970. We gathered in the gym and we had to choose a sport for our first winter term at the school. Tommy Carr said (and his words remain etched into my memory): “Well boys, you’ve got two choices, you can play rugby or you can play rugby. What’s it going to be then?”

Fred: Yes that sounds about right. You weren’t alone in hating Rugby back then though. My first bad memory actually goes back further to St John’s when someone decided to play a mean trick by nominating me to play for one of the school teams. When I queried it, after letting me stew for a bit, they said it’s OK, I was only the number 16 so in fact I would be a linesman. After an all too brief training (I never quite could sort out which way to point the flag), I found it quite hard even to keep up with the play. I set off running up the side of the pitch and suddenly the whistle blows and they awarded a line-out. I said what was that for, and they said I had been waving the flag in whichever direction it was. I hadn’t really been waving the flag at all, just flailing in my efforts to run as fast as I could. Anyway, they never picked me again, thank goodness.

Me: Ah, St Johns on the Hill or the “Dump on the Tump” as I used to call it. The headmaster was an unusual character as I remember and I’ve done my best to forget my undistinguished sojourn there.

Fred: Are you willing to reveal what you did on the bus?

Me:  “The Stink Bombs on the Bus” episode was not one of my finer moments, I’m afraid. It happened one Monday in September after a Saturday expedition to the joke shop on Christmas Steps in Bristol when I was about eleven or twelve I think. I’d purchased several phials of a very noxious fluid called Stinko. Each was equivalent to about 10 normal stink bombs. My intention was to resell them at a profit in school.

On the double decker bus going to school on Monday morning, I happened to sit upstairs next to someone who could only be described as a serially naughty lad and an unremitting recidivist. Without naming names, do you remember Roger Reece? I told him about the Stinko I had bought in Bristol and we agreed on a price. He handed over the readies and I gave him a couple of tubes of the malodourous fluid.

Then Reecy did something unexpected as I should have foreseen. He walked to the back of the bus where the stairs were. The bus conductor (those were the days eh?) used to stand downstairs right at the back of the bus by the door. He took the top off a tube of Stinko and said “I wonder what would happen if I tip this all over the shelf right at the back.” And then he proceeded to do exactly that and then opened the second tube and did the same with that one! I was a bit stunned by this, like a deer in the headlights, and I knew in that instant as my life flashed before me, that this was a bad day which would only get worse.

I retreated quickly to the front of the bus and hid. The Stinko fluid, remember we are talking of the equivalent of 20 stink bombs here, dripped down onto the poor old bus conductor and the double decker quickly filled with the intense smell of a thousand farts. To cut a long story short, the bus had to be evacuated in Chepstow bus station and taken out of service for a hose-down and a deep clean. The poor old bus conductor was taken away for decontamination and to be measured-up for the new uniform he needed. I’ll bet he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere near his wife for weeks. Other than suffering from slight shock, he was fine I understand, and fortunately went on to make a swift recovery.

Eventually, a replacement bus rolled into the bus station.  We were herded on to it and driven up to school, arriving well over an hour late. At this stage, apart from the other kids on the bus, nobody in any kind of authority had a clue who was responsible for the dastardly deed that had been committed. The odour-free replacement bus rocked-up in the school yard and there was a grim looking reception committee waiting for us; consisting of the Head Mrs Hurt, the Deputy Head Mr Papadopoulis, and a couple of heavies from the PE department to keep us under control. I suppose we’d call it “kettling” these days? Probably, Tommy Carr was there, cos that was exactly the kind of activity he relished as a PE teacher, but I couldn’t swear to it in all honesty.

We were lined up outside Mrs Hurt’s office and were told, in terms that left no room at all for any doubt, that unless the miscreants owned up, everybody on the bus would be on permanent detention for rest of their lives. The precise question asked of us was “Who was the idiot that had brought the stink bombs onto the bus?” At that point, I knew my goose was well and truly cooked, my chickens had come home to roost etc., and that I was going to have a really, really, poor day…

It’s hard to overstate the peer pressure exerted by the other 60 odd kids on the bus who were looking at a lifetime of detention unless I owned up. They knew exactly who the perpetrators were. Realising, that my case was hopeless and that no amount of charm or bullshit was going to get me off this time, I straightened my back, pushed out my chest, sucked in my stomach (to the extent that was possible in those days) and owned up to the crime, to the palpable relief of all the other kids, except Reecy. To his credit, thinking that it would be unfair for me to take the rap all on my own, he “fessed” up too.

We then got one of the most comprehensive, wide ranging and intensive bollockings it has ever been my privilege to receive. Punishments were meted out and mine was four of the best with some community service (permanent rubbish collection duty as I remember) thrown in for good measure. This was complicated a bit by the fact that Mrs Burt taught English to the top set in my year. I was a bit of a favourite of hers and also one of the better students in the class at the time. That didn’t last long though… Anyway, unable to bring herself to thrash one of her favourite pupils, she delegated that task to the Deputy Head, Mr Papadopoulis.

He shared none of her qualms in that respect. The deputy head didn’t use a cane, but a bit of 2 by 2 which he applied to my rear end with what can only be described as considerable enthusiasm. I can remember, taking my punishment like a man without so much as a whimper and then striding purposefully into the boys’ toilets, sitting down and flushing repeatedly to cool down my throbbing posterior.

And that in short, Fred, is the sorry story of stink bomb on the bus. I still think of this unfortunate episode from time to time, tinged as it must be with some regrets of course, and then chuckle and wish I’d struck a better deal for the Stinko with Reecy. But, hey, life is too short to dwell on the “What ifs and what might have beens” don’t you think?

Charles A. Pierce: report for the summer term 2017 – Grade MBE

Charlie - banner

As I reported in an earlier post, Charlie Pierce, my friend and neighbour in Vanuatu was awarded an MBE  in the Birthday Honours list for “Services to Education in Vanuatu”.  I wrote a brief account of his life and times for the British Friends of Vanuatu’s August 2017 newsletter.  I thought I’d put the unexpurgated version on my blog. Charlie has led a very full, interesting and useful life. Typically, he was in Port Vila on one of his frequent extended visits, running the first ever course on climate change and disaster risk reduction (CCDRR) at the Vanuatu Institute of Technology when he received the news of his honour. Not bad going for a man in his mid-seventies who celebrated the forty-sixth anniversary of his first arrival in Vanuatu earlier this year!

Charlie - fieldwork

Originally from Nottingham in the East Midlands, Charlie lost his father to TB at the age of four. His mother Mollie shouldered responsibility for raising him and his younger brother Hugh, resisting all efforts by the authorities to put the two boys in “care” as was common in post-WWII England. He was a sickly child who experienced the full gamut of childhood illnesses from pneumonia to scarlet fever and the mumps together with plentiful spills from his bicycle. The family moved to Kent to live with his mother’s parents in Rainham and it was there that he spent his formative childhood and teenage years. The family were habitual rather than devout Anglicans and there was little discussion of religion or faith at home.  At quite a young age, Charlie was given the option by his mother of joining the boy scouts or the church choir. He chose to sing and became head choirboy, even performing solos until his voice broke. His mother had enormous influence on him during his early years, encouraging him to develop his abilities in singing and piano-playing, and through stressing core values such as perseverance, punctuality, responsibility, high moral standards and care for others.

The young Charlie

The young Charlie (known at the time by his second name Andrew) was a clever lad and a very good student, easily passing the 11+ exam which allowed him to attend to Gillingham Grammar School for Boys. He had decided at an early age that he wanted to be a Geography teacher, despite being advised by Miss Banister, an elderly spinster on the teaching staff that he should seriously consider the priesthood. The academic hurdles he encountered at school and later university were easily surmounted in pursuit of that objective.  In O-level Geography, he achieved the highest mark in the UK in the exam set by the University of London Examinations Board. This very impressive achievement confirmed for him that he was set-fair and travelling in the right direction.  He passed a clutch of A-levels, including French which ensured a very good command of that language; important to him later-on in Vanuatu. He studied Geography, Geology and Psychology at Bristol University, graduating with a Bachelor of Science honours degree in 1961.  This was followed by a post-graduate certificate of education that enabled him to practice as a teacher.

By the time he had finished university, Charlie had drifted away from Anglicanism. Whilst still a young choirboy in Rainham, he had baulked at the church’s insistence on the avoidance of contact with Catholics and others of different denominations or faiths, which was quite common in those days. Since then he had travelled quite extensively in Europe and North America, met many different sorts of people of all kinds of different faiths and had come to the realisation that there were many more things that united people rather than those that separated them. In essence – he had concluded that the human race is one.

First job in teaching

His first job was as a teacher at a large comprehensive school in Bristol where he gained much rich experience through working with a wide range of children and learning to fit-in with a huge teaching staff.  His social life revolved around playing for the staff rugby and cricket teams, singing in the staff male voice choir, and playing the piano in the local pub.  Yet deep down, he had a yearning for more, a quest for something deeper.  After three years, he felt that he could make a success of teaching, but needed to know more about the wider world.  He answered an advertisement in a national newspaper and joined a mixed expedition of twelve people that was taking a Land Rover from London to Kathmandu.  On September 3rd 1966, Charlie left the white cliffs of Dover behind to travel on the ferry to Ostende and from there into the unknown.


It’s time to see the world

It was the journey of a life-time, and one that would change him forever.  Not only did he come across so many different belief systems  –  various denominations of Christianity as well as Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism  –  but he also saw that all these belief systems were essentially the same.  After reaching Nepal, he continued along the “hippy trail” through Burma and Thailand to Malaysia.  It was there, when he ran out of money and took a job in a Chinese-run private school, where he first came across the Baha’i Faith. It taught that all religions originated from the one God, that all races and genders were equal and it emphasised the importance of truth, honesty and service to others. It was going to profoundly shape the rest of his life although it would take Charlie another year or so to understand that, and to fully embrace its ideals and teachings. He eventually did so at the end of his two-year long world trip in Sydney, Australia. It was 1968: a year of tumult and change everywhere.

New Hebrides here I come…

Charlie first arrived in the New Hebrides in March 1971 as a volunteer teacher. There are no missionaries in the Baha’i Faith.  Instead, its members are encouraged to leave their homes and settle as “pioneers” in another locality or country in order to disseminate the teachings of Baha’u’llah through the example of their daily lives. They try as far as possible to work and earn a living to ensure their independence.

He had recently become engaged to Barbara, whom he had met in Perth, Western Australia, while teaching at a high school there. He says of his budding romance with Barbara: “It wasn’t love at first sight.  But it was when she began to be interested in the Baha’i Faith, and we found we had so much in common –  both teachers, both with a love for humanity and a desire to serve others – that the attraction grew deeper.”  Forty-six years later, Charlie and Barbara are still together. Charlie thinks “The secret of our long and happy marriage is the spiritual union that comes with us both being Baha’is.  We also allow each other to be independent, each able to do his or her own thing.  Family consultations are important.”

Charlie & family

Challenging times

His task was to take over the running of a small, poorly resourced Baha’i school that had been operating in Port Vila since 1954. Due to the lack of funds and the increasing availability of places in schools newly constructed by the British and French condominium administration all over the archipelago, it was decided to close the school. Many clouds have a silver lining and this one enabled Charlie to return to Perth to marry Barbara in December 1971. They completed their honeymoon by catching a flight back to Port Vila in February 1972.  Back in Vila, he became an employee of the Condominium Bureau of Statistics, responsible for collecting and processing statistics on migration, retail prices and overseas trade.  His main responsibility, however, was to help manage and conduct urban & national censuses.

Malapoa at last!

In 1979, Charlie was offered the post of head of Geography and Social Science at Malapoa College and he taught there on expatriate and local terms for twenty years, until 1999. He was responsible for the academic and pastoral well-being of the large number of children in his care.

Charlie - comments on social media

He also undertook a number of important, additional activities which included: developing Vanuatu’s national curriculum for Social Science and writing fourteen textbooks for use in schools nationwide. He pioneered a new course in Development Studies for final year students. This course was recognised as a full examination subject in the Pacific Secondary Schools Certificate administered by the South Pacific Board for Educational Assessment (SPBEA) in Fiji. He worked too as a moderator in Geography and Development studies in the regional PSSC examination, and was Chief Examiner in Development Studies from 1996 to 1999. During this period, he served as the Vanuatu correspondent for the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.

Music Man

In addition, Charlie was also the careers guidance counsellor for all senior students at the College and he ran the music and cricket clubs. A highly proficient musician, Charlie assumed responsibility for organising the annual Malapoa Music Night – a nationally renowned festival of student musicians that continues to this day, and involves at least 200 students in each performance.

nagavika band

In August 2016, the Nagavika Band reunited for the Malapoa College Golden Jubilee celebrations. This was the first time the lads had played together in about 35 years!

VIT – working very hard

In 1999, Charlie moved from Malapoa College to become an adviser and lecturer at the Vanuatu Institute of Teacher Education (VITE) under the newly established VASTEP programme.  After 2002, when this was localised as the Diploma of Secondary Education – Anglophone Programme, he remained there on a local contract as a lecturer in Social Science.  From 2009 onwards he was given the extra responsibility of serving as Head of the Social Science Department, in which he was involved in the design and delivery of a new “harmonized curriculum” in both English and French at VITE. In addition, Charlie taught several Earth Science and Geography courses at the University of the South Pacific’s Emalus Campus in Port Vila. He served as Chief Examiner in both Development Studies and Geography for the regional PSSC examination set by SPBEA. He was also involved in the design of the new Year 11-13 curriculum for Vanuatu schools in Geography and Development Studies, and had on-going responsibilities for “climate change education” in Vanuatu. It is very difficult to imagine that Charlie ever found himself at a loose-end for long…..

Charlie’s work for the Baha’i Faith

Outside of his work in the education sector, Charlie was also a very active and prominent member of the local Baha’i community during his long residency in Vanuatu. For almost thirty years, he was Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Vanuatu, the administrative body responsible for the affairs of the whole community. In that capacity, he wrote thousands of letters in Bislama, English and French related to community building, spiritual empowerment and educational programmes throughout the archipelago.  Whilst I am not a person of faith myself, I do recognise the significant contribution that the Baha’i community has made to national development and moral education in Vanuatu over many years.

Port Vila spiritual assembly

Fear & forgiveness

In July 2013, following a robbery in May 2012 at their home at Malapoa, Port Vila, during which he was brutally beaten, Charlie and Barbara decided to relocate permanently to Albany in Western Australia. Fortunately, Barbara was overseas at the time of the attack. The robbers, drunk and high on marijuana at the time, were caught (one was shot dead by the police) and given long sentences in the Port Vila maximum security prison.  In May 2016, Charlie travelled from his home in Western Australia to meet, reconcile with and to forgive his principal attacker, who remains in gaol. It was the act of an extremely decent man and a tremendous example of personal courage which was widely reported in the region. An interview with him talking about his assault, the subsequent meeting and reconciliation with his attacker was recently shown on television in Papua New Guinea.  Warning – it is impossible to watch this video without being very moved.


Changes in Vanuatu over the last forty-six years

I asked Charlie to highlight some of the major changes he has seen in Vanuatu during his forty-six year long association with the country. He responded as follows:

  • “Independence has led to the development of decision-making bodies composed entirely of ni-Vanuatu, at national, provincial and local level. This empowerment of the indigenous population is a very positive development.  Things may not yet get done as efficiently as, perhaps, in condominium times, but it is an on-going process that will take many years, and there are now some really capable leaders in place.
  • A parallel development is the increasing confidence and self-assurance shown by the ni-Vanuatu population. You can see this at all levels of society, ranging from the market sellers and peanut-vendors to senior personnel in banks, offices and private businesses
  • A less positive development perhaps has been the huge influx of Chinese small business people and building workers who may be crowding-out the ni-Vanuatu from access to important sectors of the economy such as retail and construction. Vanuatu’s leaders need to think carefully about developing appropriate policies that will encourage and enable entrepreneurialism amongst the indigenous population and protect their access to skilled and semi-skilled work.
  • Although French and English are still the official languages of education, Bislama has become more and more important as everyone’s working language. Bislama itself is changing all the time, adding new English words and adopting short cuts as a result of the use of texting and FB.  Thus “blong” is now “blo” and “long” is now “lo”.
  • I get the impression that French is declining in importance and use. Most government offices communicate in English rather than French. The newspapers publish most articles in English or Bislama.  In the past, and just after Independence, we had champions of the French language such as the late Georges Calo, but the only champions I detect now are the Alliance Francaise and the Agence Universitaire Francaise (AUF).  All French speakers try to talk in English.  Hardly any English speakers want to use French, and still have the mental block that was there before Independence.
  • There is massive urban migration and Port Vila’s roads are choked with traffic, especially now, when there is a major roadworks project in operation and constant traffic diversions.
  • I think there are also signs of increasing social breakdown, characterized by drug-taking, on-going domestic violence and continued suppression of women’s rights, robberies, family breakdown and a rise in one-parent families, increasing teenage pregnancies, loss of respect, vandalism, increased casual sexual relationships, etc.
  • There is growing proof of environmental degradation, ranging from wholesale deforestation in coastal areas of the largest islands to widespread land pollution from the indiscriminate use of plastic bags, and over-fishing in coral reef systems.
  • I don’t like to say this, but I see more and more evidence of teachers being absent from class without valid justification, and the negative impact this has on student motivation and learning.

Yet it would be unfair to say that everything is changing.  Some things remain constant, such as the all-embracing extended family networks, home care for the elderly and disabled, reconciliation ceremonies cemented by the exchange of mats and other traditional gifts, the intense love shown for children, the often harsh treatment of teenagers by their families, the ubiquitous use of kava in both urban and rural settings, string band music, a diet overwhelmingly rich in carbohydrate, the on-going fragmentation of Christian churches, and a sense of acceptance of the negative impacts of natural hazards that seems to translate into a form of resilience.”

Charlie is hopeful for the future of Vanuatu but he thinks there are a number of important issues its leaders need to pay keen attention to going forward:

“Yes, I think there is an inbuilt resilience to change and an ability to recover from set-backs.  If political leaders can learn to put aside their own personal interests and advancement and focus on service delivery down to the level of the basic family unit, then society can flourish.  As a Baha’i, however, I believe that the key to achieving a sustainable future is for due recognition to be placed on the equality of men and women, and on achieving a society characterized by unity in diversity and a recognition that religious differences must be overcome.  It is clear that environmental degradation is a real issue, and that increasing efforts must be geared towards sustainable development and the conservation of resources.  There must be greater emphasis on renewable sources of energy and on climate change adaptation.  I guess that’s why I have so much commitment to the development and delivery of the current certificate course on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction at the Vanuatu National Institute of Technology.”

Charlie Pierce MBE – role model

Charlie Pierce 1

 In all the many years, I have lived, worked and been associated with Vanuatu, I have never heard anyone say anything other than warm and affirming about either Charlie or Barbara. He is a humble and unassuming man, universally admired by his former students as a very decent human being, a brilliant teacher, and someone who passionately wanted them all to succeed. Dedication, kindness and generosity are his stand-out qualities. He is highly respected by ni-Vanuatu leaders and expatriates alike as someone who has made it his life’s work to improve education and to promote development in Vanuatu. The “Distinguished Service Medal”, bestowed on Charlie in 1996 by the late Jean-Marie Léyé, a former President for services to the nation, is a real testament to his enormous commitment to the country over his many decades of living and working there.

Charlie Pierce 4

From my own personal perspective, which I know is shared by many others, I think Charlie Pierce MBE is one of the great, largely unsung heroes of post-independence Vanuatu. His contribution to post-condominium public education in Vanuatu has been very significant, and far beyond what could have been reasonably expected of any expatriate teacher or academic. At seventy-six, he continues to lead a full and productive life, filled with many significant achievements, which he lives with a quiet dignity, simplicity and calm. He is a wonderful role model in a world that all too readily celebrates the shallow, the self-serving and the trivial. I sincerely hope that Charlie, Barbara and their family derive great satisfaction and pleasure from seeing his lifetime of service to Vanuatu, recognised and honoured in this very special way by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

David Lewis, Broadsands, Devon, July 2017




We Have Reached Peak Jeremy Corbyn


I am going to make a prediction that many people are not going to like. It is this – the June 2017 general election represented the high-water mark of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Why is this relevant? Despite all the hoopla and excitable claims, the Labour Party lost. It won 56 seats less than the Tories and it was 64 MPs short of the 326 needed to win an outright majority in the House of Commons. We are still then lumbered with a Tory government, at least for the present.

That’s not to detract for a moment from the excellent campaign that JC and Labour ran. He performed much better than I (most of his MPs, the Tories or the commentariat) believed that he would do, and he was clearly able to connect with voters in a way that was completely beyond Theresa May.

However, if Labour is to win the next election, which may not be very far away, it will need to convince many more voters in those additional 64 seats needed that it has the policies and the answers they want. I think that this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons:

  • Jeremy Corbyn and Labour did quite well, but against a weak Conservative leader and a hopeless Tory election campaign. There are Tories grandees saying that this was their worst election campaign in modern times. Theresa May became increasingly exposed and unpopular the longer the unfortunate process lasted. If it had gone on for another few days, Jeremy Corbyn could well have been moving into 10 Downing Street next weekend.
  • The Tories will not let Theresa May lead them into the next election whenever that that may be. They will appoint a leader with a much greater ability to connect with the electorate and far better political skills well before then. Instead of anointing the new leader as they did with Mrs May last year, there will most probably be a more rigorous selection process to properly assess the candidates.
  • There is talk of a Boris Johnson / Michael Gove joint ticket. Boris as the amusing frontman – or the limbic brain, and Gove as the frontal cortex of the duo to do the heavy lifting and serious thinking. It makes for an interesting image. Whilst there is no doubt that Michael Gove is a clever man, he is also like Marmite for many of us. To be effective, cleverness needs to be coupled with common sense and sound judgement. The high jinks and jolly capers of last summer’s Tory leadership election amply demonstrated this is one area where the Govester does not score highly.  When the term “loose cannon” was originally coined, Boris Johnson could easily have been the inspiration. The Tories need to think carefully about what they wish for.
  • The Labour manifesto promised a great deal but was rather disingenuous about how it would all be funded. Because the Tory campaign was all about Teresa May and because she hid herself away most of the time, the Labour promises were never really challenged by others in the Tory party who were better placed to do so. That’s not going to happen again next time around in my view.
  • The Labour manifesto tuition fees pledge got the full attention of young people and for the first time in my memory, got them out to vote in very significant numbers, predominantly for Labour. They’d slept through the Brexit vote last year to their detriment. They really helped to swing things for Labour this time. Full credit to Jeremy Corbyn for achieving this seemingly impossible task; albeit helped by social media, an effective, national & local Labour Party machine and a £30k sweetener…
  • The Tories will have learned some very bitter lessons about the hopeless manifesto they produced. They have already started cleaning house this weekend with the abrupt departures of the much disliked Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former joint chiefs of staff and pit bull enforcers who bear significant responsibility for the debacle. They will be utterly ruthless in doing whatever needs to be done to make the party electable, because that’s how the Tories behave.
  • Without doubt, the next Tory manifesto will be much more hopeful and positive. It will also have to match or neutralise the offer made to young people by Labour on tuition fees.
  • Many young people will be fed-up that the Tories are still in power and that their votes have seemingly had no effect. They may well be much more disinclined to vote next time or perhaps they may vote Tory, given the better offer the Conservatives will surely make to them?
  • If a newly installed Tory leadership has any sense, it will abandon the rush towards the US-style, drastically pared-down state, spending 35 percent of GDP, beloved of David Cameron and George Osborne and all their rich pals. The Conservatives have come a cropper with this before during the Thatcher / Major era. They cut taxes, looked after business and the wealthy with the result that our public services became threadbare and unreliable. They then got rightly tossed-out by a fed-up electorate.
  • The British are Europeans not Americans. We don’t like the high levels of inequality seen today in the UK, and we do like our NHS and our public services to work well. If politicians are straight and honest with us about their cost, we are prepared to pay for them too. A savvy politician will recognise this and aim for something between the Scandinavian model and where we are now. If the Tories are clever and wise, and they may well be under a new leader, then that is the line they could well take. The Labour leader will have to have something ready to counter this eventuality, should it come to pass.
  • In my view, it is almost certain that the next election will happen before the Brexit negotiations have got into full swing and well before the shape of the final deal becomes apparent. Because Labour has been all over the place about Brexit; because Jeremy Corbyn is ambivalent about the EU; and because very many young people want the UK to stay in Europe, the electoral implications of Brexit on Labour’s electoral fortunes are very hard to predict.

So where does that leave those of us who want the Labour Party to do well but who have had deep reservations about Jeremy Corbyn from Day One? I remain with my long-held view that it will be very difficult for Labour to win from the hard left. If it is to govern on its own, it will need to attract significant numbers of Tory, Lib Dem or SNP voters in at least an additional 64 seats to allow it, at a minimum, to scrape over the finishing line and to avoid having to be propped-up by another party. To do this will require a more moderate, centrist leader. He or she must be prepared to take on many of the manifesto promises outlined by Jeremy Corbyn and his team, because the direction of travel is good and they are popular with voters. They must also have a more honest and credible plan for funding those pledges which will stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

Jeremy Corbyn is going to be hard to shift anytime soon. However, if the Labour Party is to make good on its manifesto pledges and bring about the change that people so desperately want, then a new leader is needed urgently to take the fight to the Tories. Without a change at the top, Labour faces another 10 years in the wilderness.

Any ideas?



Tanna – the Movie

tanna the movie

Alerted in mid-February to Tanna’s first screening foray into the UK’s provinces, Rona and I decided to get ourselves over to the Harbour Lights Picture House in Southampton from our base in Devon to see what all the fuss was about.  We were not to be disappointed in the slightest by the cinematographic triumph that unfolded before us that evening.

Having now watched the film in its entirety, it is completely understandable to me why it has attracted such a high degree of attention around the world, both from film critics and film festivals alike. It is an extraordinary movie – intense, passionate, moving, spiritual and beautifully filmed. A complete one-off that explores the universal human themes of war and peace, love, loyalty and community, set entirely in the context of a small, South Pacific island which forms part of the Vanuatu archipelago.

The film was made completely on location in Tanna by two Australian filmmakers: Bentley Dean and Martin Butler. Both had previously worked together in making documentaries. Bentley Dean had initially visited Tanna in 2003 to make a film about the John Frum movement for Australian television.  The storyline is based on actual events on Tanna and was developed by the Australian filmmakers in close collaboration with the Yakel people. The film was shot is entirely in two Tannese languages – Nauvhal and Nafe and is subtitled in English throughout.

Based around the actual 1987 suicides on Tanna of two young star-crossed lovers, the story is a modern day, South Pacific tragedy. It follows the same dramatic arc described in Romeo and Juliet which in its time was the latest in a tradition of tragic romances stretching back to antiquity. In Tanna the film, as in Shakespeare’s play, the untimely deaths of Dain and Wawa, the eponymously named protagonists of the movie, help to enable reconciliation between those left behind. One important consequence of the very unfortunate events of 1987 was that “love marriage” between young people became socially acceptable as opposed to the Kastom or arranged marriage which had previously been the norm.

In addition to the central theme of a love frustrated, the storyline touches on the rivalry and competition that exists between neighbouring tribes on Tanna for land and resources. Also explored is the nature of community in that part of the world and how the desires and wishes of the individual are generally subordinate to the needs and security of the group in Melanesian societies.  Yasur or Yahul as it is called in the film, the volcano plays an important role as the spiritual home of the Tannese and a kind of Mother Earth figure.

The stars of the show are an attractive young couple called Dain and Wawa of the (real) Yakel tribe.  Dain is the handsome grandson of the Yakel Chief who has recently returned home from his travels. Wawa is a beautiful young woman who has harboured feelings for Dain from her childhood. In the context of the film, the Imedin people are their ancient enemies and there have been many conflicts in the past between the two peoples. In fact, it is mentioned that Dain witnessed the savage killing of his parents in their own garden by men of the Imedin tribe.

Dain and Wawa fall secretly in love and decide to marry which is forbidden under Kastom. When Wawa comes of age, her community decides that she should be married off to a man from the Imedin tribe. In love with Dain, she protests vehemently against this but to no avail. In one of the most revealing moments of the film she is told by an elder that “love marriage” is not permitted. Arranged marriage is at the heart of Kastom and it is about building alliances between warring tribes and preserving the peace. When Wawa continues to protest, she is told “It is not about you – it is about us” as the women of the Yakel continue to pile the pressure on Wawa to do the right thing for the tribe.

Undeterred, Dain and Wawa continue their romance and are discovered. Dain is expelled from the Yakel and sent into the wilderness. Preparations continue for Wawa’s marriage into the Imedin tribe until she runs away to find Dain. They try to find refuge in a Christian village on Tanna but that does not work out. In the end, frustrated that there seems no way for them to be to be together, they decide to take their own lives on the slopes of Yahul (Yasur) by eating poison mushrooms. This takes place in a spectacular scene with Yasur erupting violently in the background. Their bodies are discovered by searchers from their community and are brought back to their village. At their funeral ceremony in the village, the Chief of the Yakel declares that “We resisted the colonial powers and we resisted the Christians but if Kastom is to survive then we must make a place in it for “love marriage”. And so, it came to pass on Tanna.

One feature of Tanna that is extraordinary is the truly amazing standard of the acting by people who are not professional actors and who may have never watched a film in their lives. It has been reported that cast members did not regard the filming as being difficult because their roles were “performing what we were used to in our daily life!”  If you do have the opportunity to watch Tanna on a big screen, take it. You will not be disappointed. The quality of the script, acting and cinematography are simply stunning in a film shot in extraordinarily beautiful locations that nonetheless must have been pretty challenging at times for its makers. The fact that Tanna has been nominated for a raft of awards, including best foreign language film at this year’s Academy Awards, is a worthy testament indeed to the brilliant quality of its storytelling.

An Eulogy for Tim – Memories of a Very Special Son and Brother



Tim was born on a warm, second Thursday in July just over a week after England beat Germany 4 – 2 in extra time to win the 1966 World Cup at Wembley. He was a beautiful and very affectionate baby right from the beginning. Like all the members of his family, he tucked heartily into his food from an early age, but fortunately for him, he never became as well-upholstered as the rest of us. However, as we shall learn shortly, sometimes it was not for want of trying! At the time, we were living over mum and dad’s business on the A48, between Newport and Chepstow. Our home looked out north to the great forest of the Wentwood and to the brooding heights of Grey Hill. There were plenty of lush green country lanes close by in which to take Tim for long walks which probably helped to keep him reasonably trim and fit.

Tim’s Down’s syndrome and complete deafness came as quite a shock to mum and dad and to all of us really, but they resolved to do everything possible to enable him to live as normal a family life as possible with us at home. Mum decided that she needed to find out as much as she could about how to help children with severe learning difficulties most effectively. When Tim was three, she enrolled on a two year, one weekend a month course at the Hill Residential Centre in Abergavenny to learn how best to stimulate and work with him to maximise the potential he had.

One of mum’s lecturers was a coordinator of special needs social services for Gwent. She provided excellent support for mum and dad and organised a place for Tim at the Hafod-yr-ynys day training centre when he was three. Although twenty miles away, Tim really enjoyed watching the world roll by during the daily minibus journey there and back. His love of riding in a car, or on a bus or train was something that remained with him for his whole life. Tim really liked to be on the move with all the wheels going around!

When he was two, our dear Grandma George who was almost universally called Mummums came to live with us. They adored each other and she was a very loving and calming influence on Tim as he tried to cope with his mental and physical challenges. As the years passed, Tim grew taller and stronger and dare I say it, quite stubborn and extremely determined at times. Without naming names, I wonder where he got that from mum? Being profoundly deaf and with absolutely no sense of danger at all, our parents were struggling to keep Tim safe and content at home even with considerable family support.

An expedition somewhere required at least three people and even then, sometimes disaster lurked not so far away. On one memorable occasion, he was returning from a lovely walk in the castle dell in Chepstow when he decided that it would be a fabulous thing to undertake a one-man sit down protest in the middle of Welsh Street and block the traffic. He could not be shifted and there were a number of unfortunate motorists that afternoon who returned home a bit later than anticipated from their errands in town.

In 1977, he went to live at Manor House in Frenchay, Bristol which was a residential home for children with a variety of disabilities. He came home most weekends and went on to spend sixteen very happy years there in the care of two fantastic women, Miss Tidder and Mrs Clark. They became extremely fond of him and looked after him brilliantly. Despite Tim’s profound disabilities, throughout his life he was able to attract and connect with the most wonderful people who loved him dearly and cared for him as they would their own. By 1992 though, he had become too old for Manor House and mum and dad were asked to find him a new home.

They looked at several, none of which they felt were suitable for our boy and were beginning to become despondent and worried that they might never find a good, kind, safe and caring home for Tim. And then one day they found Littlecroft and all of those concerns disappeared overnight. They knew immediately that they had found the right place and that they could put all their fears to rest. Tim and our whole family were so fortunate when he moved to the farm in early 1993. It gave him absolutely outstanding care, tranquillity, a real quality of life and genuine love for almost a quarter of a century. In recent years though, his health had deteriorated significantly. Early on Monday morning last week, after a short illness, he slipped away painlessly and peacefully, cared for by his dear old pals who looked after him so wonderfully right up until the very end at Littlecroft.

Thank you so very much to everyone who works there: to Lynn for having the idea in the first place and then putting it into practice wonderfully, for finding great people to work with and for always putting Tim’s needs before any commercial considerations; to Pauline for managing Littlecroft  with great competence, care and compassion, for stoically navigating the sometimes Kafkaesque care bureaucracy and never giving up, and for being Tim’s great friend; to Rob and Ben for being like true brothers to Tim and always looking out for him; and to all the staff for always being kind, caring and generally just brilliant. You are simply the BEST! Words alone cannot adequately express our immense gratitude and huge debt to you all. The Care Quality Commission once asked us in one of its surveys how we thought Tim’s care could be improved. We thought long and hard about the question for a couple of days but we couldn’t think of a single thing that we would change or alter.

We would also like to offer our sincere thanks to Dr Lane his GP, Dr Winterbottom and all the Community Learning & Disabilities team at the local NHS Trust for all the excellent care they provided Tim with during the last 23 years. And last but not least, over the last 50 years, various members of the family have given considerable help and support with looking after and caring for Tim. You know who you are and we are very grateful to you all.

Some of our Favourite Tales about Tim


Needless to say I have been thinking lots about Tim and all our adventures over the last 23 years. He had a marvellous sense of humour and often you would find him smirking behind his hand and you knew he had either done something or was planning it! My first memory of Tim and his “crafty antics” was on my second day at Littlecroft. We were all sitting at the table for a light, poached eggs on toast lunch. We all had 2 pieces of toast and an egg on each of them. We hadn’t started eating and Alan, a member of staff turned to Lisa on his right to assist her. Quick as a flash, Tim’s hand shot out, he grabbed an egg off Alan’s plate, stuffed it straight into his mouth and then put his hands down, flat on the table – the very epitome of youthful innocence. Alan turned back, totally unaware of what had happened to find only one egg left on his plate and Tim with a very crafty smile on his face indeed!

He learnt to do so many things for himself such as pushing the wheelbarrow up to the farm with the black rubbish bag. On arrival at the farm’s refuse bin, he would lift it out and put it straight in. One thing he would never do though was to turn the wheelbarrow around as you or I would do…no, it had to be done Tim’s way. He would go around to the front of the barrow and lift it straight up off the floor and walk around with it until it was facing the correct way to go back to the cottage. When we arrived back at the cottage, it had to be left in only one place in the garden – tipped up against the fence. If he was in the garden and you left anything about it would vanish, courtesy of Tim of course, but you always knew where to find it…over the garden fence!! This included on numerous occasions, the wheelbarrow itself. Tim was an extremely strong man.

Brixham became one of our favourite holiday retreats, it had everything for Tim to stimulate his senses. We would use the Western Lady ferry to and fro to Torquay on an almost daily basis. Tim would “ooo” and pat his chest, a sign he was enjoying the movement, wind, and sea air. We also regularly did the three-legged Round Robin or the Full Monty as it is known by some staff members. This consists of the steam train from Paignton to Kingswear, then a ferry to Dartmouth, a river cruise up to Totnes and finally an open top bus back to Paignton. On a warm and sunny summer’s day it is a trip that is truly heaven in Devon! It was six or seven hours on the move with plenty of wheels turning. Tim was in paradise. We would arrange to meet up with Val and the family, usually at Squires, a local restaurant in Churston. Val would always treat us to a delicious meal of fish and chips which Tim would thoroughly enjoy. When we visit Devon again and encounter once more the “fishy smell” that could only be Brixham, we will always remember Tim and the lovely times we had there with him.


One of my favourite stories is about an excursion that Tim took when he was about twenty years old to Thornbury with our parents. Mum and dad were taking him out for the afternoon from Manor House and they needed to obtain some essential provisions in preparation for their trip. Mum went into a local supermarket to make the necessary purchases leaving dad in the front of the car contentedly engrossed in his Financial Times and our hero apparently dozing quietly in the back. Well, Tim decided that taking forty winks in a parked car was definitely not living up to his expectations for the afternoon’s jaunt with mum and dad and he therefore needed to liven the proceedings up a bit. So he gleefully stripped off every single piece of clothing he had on and threw them all out of the rear window of the car. This was quite an unusual thing to do in the middle of a crowded supermarket carpark, even by the fairly relaxed standards of the mid 1980’s. Saying that my dear old dad would have been rather discombobulated when he glanced into his rear view mirror and realised what was happening in the back of the car, would have been to understate his reaction quite a bit.  Knowing him as I did, I am very sure that he would have been shocked and appalled! I can certainly imagine and indeed I can almost hear the “duw duws” there must have been, even now at a remove of almost 30 years!

Remember, these were the days before mobile phones and dad had no way of sending an SOS to mum, fully focused as she undoubtedly would have been on her vital mission to procure the cool beverages and tasty comestibles needed to sustain the afternoon’s activities. Thankfully, she soon returned, her task successfully accomplished. The scattered clothes were then quickly retrieved from underneath the surrounding vehicles, Tim was dressed appropriately once more and seemliness & serenity were restored to the supermarket carpark. Happily for the world, Tim seems to have been the only member of our family who has ever had the slightest inclination or propensity to disport themselves publicly in their birthday suit.


Tim really did enjoy his trips to the local hostelry. One day, Lynn, Rob and myself were out at a darts match and we had taken Tim along to have a drink with us. Tim was stood at the bar with his back to a chap who was waiting patiently for his drink. The man did as we all do in a pub, and he looked up and down the bar whilst waiting to be served. Quick as greased lightning, Tim spotted his opportunity and his hand shot out, picked up the poor chap’s pint off the bar and down it went, whoosh!! in one go. He then quickly replaced the glass on the bar where he had got it from. It all happened so rapidly, we stood as if transfixed, unable to react fast enough. A few seconds later the man turned to pick up his drink, totally oblivious to what had happened. He looked down at his empty glass and did a double take with a look of complete shock on his face. Mr Innocent aka Tim stood there, grinning to himself as if it was absolutely nothing to do with him! We quickly had to step in, apologise and explain what had happened. The purchase of a replacement pint fortunately brought this potentially unhappy episode to a satisfactory conclusion!

I could go on and on as Tim was a real character and a very special person to us who will be sadly missed. I wouldn’t say Tim was part of Littlecroft, I would say Tim was Littlecroft and that will never change. Tim is still here with us, tidying up, blowing raspberries in the mini bus and grinning his cheeky smile of mischief behind his hand.  R.I.P Tim xxx


Unfortunately, my very talented sister  who is facing her own health challenges, is unable to be here with us today to bid farewell to our boy. Soon after hearing the very sad but not unexpected news last week that Tim had left us, she wrote a beautiful poem which perfectly captures the very essence of him. I would like to take a moment to share it with you. 

For Tim

To a silent world our cariad brother came

He never heard or even spoke his name

Yet with a gift that many others yearn

Of being loved and loving in return

SO MANY thanks to those who loved our boy

As their own through sadness, light and shade

Who helped him be himself and give us joy

Memories of true devotion never fade

And when we’re asked how we’ll remember him?

As brave, endearing, funny, dearest Tim

Yn Awr Mewn Hedd

(Now at Peace)

The Power of the State versus the Right of a Citizen to Privacy

I’ve thought about the issue of the power of the state versus our individual rights and freedoms quite a lot recently. Events such as 9/11, 7/7 and the recent events in Paris and Brussels starkly illustrate just how important it is to get the balance right. Edward Snowdon, the whistle blower, was right when he said “…If we do nothing, we sort of sleepwalk into a total surveillance state where we have both a super-state that has unlimited capacity to apply force with an unlimited ability to know (about the people it is targeting) – and that’s a very dangerous combination. That’s the dark future…”

This is the dystopian vision of the future that Orwell foreshadowed in his book 1984 and nobody really wants to go there. I can remember watching Andrew Parker of the Security Service and Iain Lobban of GCHQ appearing in front of the Security and Intelligence committee to justify the intelligence gathering powers to be granted to the state by the Draft Communications Data Bill a.k.a. the Snoopers Charter. They provided a compelling case for the bill by emphasising the point that the primary responsibility of the state is to keep its citizens safe. Without the right to security and life, all other rights are meaningless.

In our modern communications age, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to track and intercept the communications of those people and organisations that would do us harm. Our security agencies need all the help they can get with this almost impossible job. But, as a well-known commentator in one of the UK’s lower rent national newspapers is apt to frequently observe: “…my golden rule is that if you give anyone a modicum of authority, they will always, always, abuse it.” And unfortunately he is pretty much spot on the money.

In another time and another age, back in the mid-1970s, the Nixon Administration had to grapple with its response to the Pentagon Papers leak for which Daniel Ellsberg was responsible. Donald Rumsfeld (erstwhile US Defence Secretary under President G.W. Bush and one of the principal architects of the debacle that was the 2nd Iraq war) the ultimate political insider who was then Chief of Staff to Nixon, observed on one of the White House tapes:

“….To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing…. You can’t trust the government; you can’t believe what they say; and you can’t rely on their judgment; and the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it’s wrong, and the president can be wrong.”

And this is where people like Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowdon, Bradley Manning and even Julian Assange play a useful, if not vital role in keeping our democracy and our freedoms safe. Individuals on the inside or outside who are prepared to risk all to challenge, to question and even to expose the activities of a sometimes over-powerful state and who help to hold it to account, are in my view, an essential piece of the mechanism needed to ensure that the right equilibrium is established between the power of the state and the rights of its citizens. The old Quaker saw about the need to “speak truth to power” is as valid in 2015 as when it was originally coined.

Where do I stand with respect to the difficult question of safety versus liberty? I stand at the fulcrum wherever it is, where the benefits of safety are counterbalanced by our rights to freedom and liberty. This is not an easy thing to determine and it is an equilibrium that is constantly in flux. Right now, I think we are traversing an exceptionally difficult period where, in order to be safe, we may have to cede some of our freedoms.

At this point, the freedom obsessives will frequently quote Benjamin Franklin who said “He who would trade liberty for some temporary security, deserves neither liberty nor security.” But I disagree with him on this issue. He could not possibly have foreseen the rise of extreme Islam or the power and reach of the modern internet and the impact of both on our security. These factors combined with the activities of hostile countries like Russia and terrorist groups like Islamic State and Al Queda, are creating some very serious challenges for our democracy and security that were unimaginable in Ben Franklin’s day.

Paradoxically, I think that the very technologies that are said to be making us vulnerable will be the instruments that help to keep us safe. Whilst social media can undoubtedly be used for malign purposes, it can also be used to help protect people. Hackers against ISIL is a recent example where techy bods are getting together to take the IT war to the terrorists. And good on them I say. Wikileaks is a useful mechanism for encouraging governments to think more carefully about what they do and how they do it. The Panama Papers have lit a fire under the tax dodging super rich who will never again be able to feel that their illicit millions are safely salted away in impregnable tax havens. Facebook and Twitter are fabulous instruments for enabling people to share ideas and information freely. After all, human progress happens a millimetre at a time, facilitated by a million conversations like this one.

How to Save Syria: a deal with two devils is urgently needed

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP
Houses of Commons


Dear Sarah,

Next month will mark the 5th anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a conflict which according to various estimates, has so far cost the lives of between two hundred thousand and half a million people – men, women and children. In addition, an estimated 1.9 million people, both combatant and non-combatant have been wounded in the seemingly endless fighting. Beyond death and injury, the costs of the conflict to the civilian population have been immense.

Half of the country’s pre-war population, more than 12 million people has been killed or forced to flee their homes. There are thought to be 1.6 million Syrian war refugees living in Turkey. Another 8 million of more are either internally displaced within Syria or have crossed the border and are living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. In 2015, over one million Syrians fled to Western Europe from the conflict zone and nearly 4,000 of them are thought to have drowned making the attempt. The first 6 weeks of 2016 have seen more than 80,000 Syrian refugees make the perilous journey to Europe.

As the Economist reported this week:

“Syria is a nasty complex of wars within a war: an uprising against dictatorship; a sectarian battle between Sunnis and Alawites (and their Shia allies); an internecine struggle among Sunni Arabs; a Kurdish quest for a homeland; a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and Turkey against Iran; and a geopolitical contest between a timid America and a resurgent Russia.”

It is now time for the West to act decisively to bring this dreadful conflict to a conclusion. A failure to do so will mean that the war will drag on endlessly into the future, destabilising the Middle East even further and allowing hundreds of thousands more Syrians to be killed and injured. An already over-stretched Europe will see millions of additional refugees in the years to come.

Further inaction is not an option in the face of this calamity of biblical proportions. It seems likely that the Syrian peace talks as presently configured will turn into an international talkfest that could go on for years without achieving anything significant. It is very clear to me that any realistic plan to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion is going to require an ultra-pragmatic approach which will require the unthinkable to be thought. In practical terms this will mean the following:

 • Involving Bashar al-Assad in the peace talks. Christopher Hill, retired US Ambassador to Iraq and veteran of the 1995 Dayton peace talks which brokered the Bosnian peace settlement, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 this week commented “The biggest mistake the US and UK have made in Syria was deciding at the start of the conflict that they could not deal with President Assad”. He went on to make the point that due to the complex multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian nature of Syria, it is vital that he [Assad] be included in talks because without him a solution to the crisis is unlikely. And so he must.

 • Acknowledging the blindingly obvious, self-evident truth that the only significant, effective military forces in Syria at the moment are those of the Assad Regime and the Russians. Any rapid resolution of the conflict and the defeat of ISIL must inevitably involve the West doing a deal with two devils: Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.

 • The West has a long history of dealing pragmatically with unsavoury leaders in pursuit of honourable objectives.

 • Assad and his local allies should be supported in taking on ISIL by the West and by Russia. The so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria on seeing the West line up with the regime and the Russians will recognise that the “game is up” and lay down their arms, disband and return to their communities. They will be very frustrated that their efforts to oust Assad have failed and disappointed in the West for its change of heart, but at least they will be alive and with a country and a future. Their security must be guaranteed as part of any future political settlement in Syria.

 • In exchange for lending its support to Assad, the West needs to extract a firm commitment from both him and the Russians, that minority groups in Syria must be protected. Prior to the civil war, there was a long history of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria living reasonably harmoniously with the Sunni majority.

 • A vital part of any peace deal in Syria will require a transition plan being agreed that will eventually see Bashar al- Assad exit the Syrian stage into retirement outside the country. If allowing Assad, the dignity of exile rather than the indignity of a war crimes trial at the ICC saves the life of a single Syrian, it will have been a deal worth making.

 • Post conflict there may be a requirement for some kind of UN led stabilisation force as happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. The UK and US must be prepared to support this with boots on the ground. This probably would also include a Russian component.

 • Syria will need to be rebuilt and that is going to cost many billions of dollars, much of which will have to come from Europe and the US. It must be made clear to the Syrians that support for the rebuilding of the country will only be forthcoming if there is significant progress in determining the future political arrangements for the country. These must include real democratic reforms, a realistic timetable for their implementation and the inclusion of significant constitutional protections as part of the political settlement for minority groups in the country.

 Vladimir Putin is clearly a very tricky customer for the West to deal with and making concessions to him, anathema for us. However, if peace in Syria requires that at least some of the Russian demands are to be allowed, then the UK and US must demonstrate some flexibility. For example, if the Russians request, as seems likely, continuing access to their Mediterranean naval base at Tartus as part of the deal, then we must be prepared to consider it seriously.

Yours sincerely,