THINGS THAT MATTER – Letter from Britain and lessons for us
Sun, 08/14/2016 - 12:00am
Sir Henry Fraser
“A week is a long time in politics.”
(Attributed to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, 1916 – 1995)
“When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.”
(Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784), Lexicographer)
A summer holiday in Britain is always a gamble. Will it rain every day, or will we succeed in carrying enough Bajan sunshine with us? Well, happily, we succeeded – with temperatures even reaching 30 degrees Celsius once or twice. And the rains are a-coming the day before we leave!
One of the pleasures of London, as Samuel Johnson implied, is that you’re at the centre of things – there’s buzz – and world news is London news. And as a writer and columnist I enjoy the wide range of British newspapers and magazines – from the working woman’s rags (Daily Mirror and Sun) to the conservatives’ rag, the Daily Mail; from the grand old ladies The Times and The Telegraph to the left wing Guardian and the award winning Independent. It’s fascinating reading the variety of opinions on the same event, and, frankly, the elegant English frankness of opinion, which few of our local commentators would have the courage to copy.
Three big British events have dominated the news. The first was the victory of Andy Murray at Wimbledon. The second was Brexit and the fall-out – with Britain’s vote to leave the European Union producing a change in Prime Minister within days. The third was the issue of corruption, focusing largely on British Home Stores owner, Sir Philip Green, renamed Sir Shifty by the press.
Perhaps no single person since Churchill has bolstered British pride and self-esteem like Andy Murray and his Wimbledon win. The Independent’s front page trumpeted “KING ANDY”. The Times printed a special cover, with the heading “He’s done it again” and four full page pictures, inside and outside, of “Britain’s sporting hero” who “sends Centre Court, Murray Mound and the nation into raptures”. He was “crowned a sporting legend”. Of course, Wimbledon is, not just for tennis fans but for the British public, THE sporting event of every year, and for a British winner (twice) after more than 70 years, the rapture is understandable.
Millions of words have been written about Brexit – Britain’s referendum which resulted in a narrow majority voting to leave the EU – and Prime Minister Cameron’s miscalculation. I began this column with Harold Wilson’s famously attributed quote “a week is a long time in politics”. And I recall the firm grasp Margaret Thatcher had on her party, winning an election challenge in 1989 with more than 90 % of the Parliamentarians’ votes cast, being firmly in charge with her “Iron Lady’s approach until the summer of 1990, when I was in Britain, and the shock I had returning for a conference in November 1990 to discover that she’d been forced to resign. And this summer, a few days after the referendum and a hot but brief campaign for a new leader, Prime Minister Cameron resigned and Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister.
Contrast this rapid, smooth and peaceful transition to the year-long circus in the USA. Perhaps I should say gladiatorial contest, given the depths of depravity, the brutality, damaging insults, false “facts” and irresponsible threats and claims thrown out almost daily by the Republican candidate, and the hypocrisy demonstrated by Republican leaders.
The British press has been at pains, in every paper and on a daily basis, to point out the fatal flaws of Mr. Trump, and why a Trump win “would be a threat to civilisation”. As one US editorial says: “Trump has constructed a parallel universe of faux facts—maybe better called lies—that are now dogma for his voters. He began his rise to national political fame by claiming that President Obama wasn’t born in this country and thus was ineligible to be president, and could be a Muslim to boot; now two-thirds of his supporters think the president is Muslim and more than half say he wasn’t born here.”
But perhaps this whole charade is symptomatic of a new world order and a change in civilisation, where anything goes. The infelicitous practices, business bungling and bankruptcies apparently associated with this candidate bring home to us the fact that the bizarre is not restricted to Banana republics or North Korean despots, but includes us all – countries big and small. The revelations relating to investment firms and banks in the last decade continue to amaze us, with perpetrators simply retiring with multi-million dollar bonuses and avoiding the jail terms they deserve. The third big news in Britain was the bankruptcy of a man called Philip Green, who ruined British Home Stores and put 3,000 out of work, and appears to have wiped out the pension fund of more than half a billion dollars, while he lives it up on his second luxury yacht, and is recognised as the fourth richest man in Britain.
The difference between Britain and banana republics and indeed our Caribbean countries, is that infelicities like Green’s are publicly debated and scrutinised, and often receive appropriate justice. Having been dubbed King of the High Street, Green is now branded the "unacceptable face of capitalism". He is under growing pressure to provide 700 million pounds from his pocket, to replace the pension deficit, having faced cross examination by a House of Commons Committee, broadcast in full on BBC. Would this happen here at home?
Of course, Brexit is widely interpreted as being partly the result of xenophobia and fear of the massive migration across Europe. And the several ghastly terrorist acts in Germany and France have inflamed this and also helped Trump’s fear-mongering campaign. Britain has been reputedly soft (read “politically correct”) on hate preaching and radicalising campaigns, and many commentators consider Brexit’s isolationist appeal to be the result.
A hot summer seems to ignite many things – passionate wars in Britain’s labour party; rail strikes; the threat of negative interest rates on bank savings (which is why a Bajan friend of mine in London keeps his money under the bed); the obesity war, which Britain is clearly losing … their ladies are now even “bigger than in the Bahamas”; fear of the planned Hinkley nuclear power plant to be funded by China; National Health Service and hospital crises (as usual!); the Pokemon Go videogame craze, which is getting many couch potatoes and even whole families out in the streets and the countryside – but which “has its dark side, and has already led to muggings and warnings about sex abuse”; and sex abuse – lots of it coming to light.
Finally, a voyeuristic if not pornographic TV show – Naked Attraction – in which the body parts of nude candidates are observed by a clothed member of the opposite sex and a moderator, who discuss the previously private anatomical details in detail! As Mediawatch UK said: “This has to be the worst programme ever shown on television”, while viewers said: “creepy”. As my mother would have said: “What next?” Simulation of sex all over our streets at Crop Over, wearing thongs and feathers?
Professor Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine. Website: profhenryfraser.com