Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Accidents of History

Following on from Friday's blog post, it has been established that from time-to-time we are able to wander off topic at the editor's whim and I'm grateful for this indulgence because to be honest there is some considerable stress associated with endless analysis of probation and its demise, and it provides some therapy. 

It might come as a surprise to some, but I'm not generally cynical by nature, but rather by force of circumstances - I'd much prefer to be inspired than grumpy. It was just last Monday that I became aware of the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London and only because of the news that our prime minister was 'dissing' some twelve Caribbean leaders by refusing to meet them to talk about the Empire Windrush scandal. By Tuesday she was eating humble pie in front of them at 10 Downing Street. As someone who has always enjoyed both politics and history, it got me thinking as to exactly what had brought about this volt face?

Lets be honest here, the Commonwealth hasn't featured in the domestic political psyche for years. We joined the Common Market in 1973 and effectively turned our back on the former colonies by confirming our membership in 1975. It must have been hugely insulting, especially to long-established trading partners like Australia and New Zealand, to be told their butter and lamb was no longer required. It strikes me that over subsequent years it became fashionable to regard the Commonwealth as an irrelevance, an historical anachronism borne of a dreadful colonial past, and now as dead as the apocryphal 'Norwegian Blue'.

But of course the Queen didn't see it like that and it's always been a source of bemusement to me that so many former colonial jurisdictions didn't either. If 53 disparate former colonies, both Republics and Monarchies, representing 2.4 billion people, still feel it's relevant and worth being an active part of in 2018, surely there has to be something to it? 

Wheels have turned, we are in the middle of Brexit and as a result of a 'force majeure' in the form of Cyclone Pam, the CHOGM scheduled for 2017 in Vanuatu was scuppered. As the Queen no longer undertakes long-distance travel and would not have attended, the decision to reschedule for London in April this year meant that in effect the Commonwealth had decided to come to her, and the timing turns out to have been exquisite. Suddenly the UK is desperate to talk trade with non-European nations; the new world needs the old world to sort out climate change; the Queen wants to cement her Commonwealth legacy; the Heads of Government wish to unite and mark a significant milestone; the Windrush saga comes to a head, and the sun is shining in London. 

As well as being at best ambivalent about the Commonwealth, many feel the same about the King-in-waiting. The position of Head of the Commonwealth is not dictated by statute or treaty and in fact it's fascinating to read on page 63 of the glossy 172 page celebratory publication 'Queen and Commonwealth - 90 Glorious Years'  how the issue was decided upon her Accession in 1952:- 

"The position of Head of the Commonwealth had not been enshrined in the constitution. In fact it had been India’s first Head of Government, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had clarified the position. When he had dispatched a telegraph of condolence to Elizabeth on her father’s death he had also, without any consultation, welcomed her as Head of the Commonwealth. The rest of the countries followed India’s example."

Last Thursday the Queen was well aware that the following day the Heads of Government would decide who would succeed her. Her preparation had been skillful and the culmination of years of dedicated service, wise counsel and judgement, combined with political nous of the highest order in making the most of an accident of history. Naysayers, including Jeremy Corbyn, who recently told Andrew Marr that a 'rotating Head' would be a good idea, just serve to prove how out of touch they are in not appreciating what was obvious to Nehru and subsequent elected Presidents, that those in positions of power by virtue of accidents of birth, very definitely have utility. And who would be brave enough to deny such a venerable international treasure and icon her 'sincerest wish' on the eve of her ninety-second birthday? The decision was unanimous, if not without some small degree of doubt from at least one quarter we learn. 

My love of history I suppose is because I aways want to know why and how things happen. I love this story recounted here and ponder if the Palace played any part in last week's rapid turnaround by Theresa May:-  

"The Queen’s biggest Commonwealth struggle came in 1986 when seven prime ministers arrived in London to talk about applying sanctions against South Africa, booted from the organization for its apartheid regime. While the seven wanted sanctions, Britain’s prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was opposed. The Queen hosted a working dinner—no spouses, no aides allowed—at which Thatcher was given a clear message that a schism would not be allowed. “She would be a minority of one,” recalls Sonny Ramphal, then secretary-general of the Commonwealth. “Margaret Thatcher had been hijacked by her Queen.” Four years later, Nelson Mandela was freed. “When Mandela came out of prison, he knew one of his benefactors was the Queen,” Ramphal states. Soon, South Africa was back in the organization and Mandela was a guest of the Queen at Buckingham Palace."   

As a young idealistic schoolboy I have fond memories of a history trip to the amazingly-futuristic Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street, sadly no more. In those halcyon days I also remember being so inspired by the notion of a bright future for our planet through other bodies such as the UN, I was motivated to attend the Christmas conferences of the grandly-titled but now defunct Council for Education in World Citizenship. 

As I grew up and idealism was inexorably replaced with cynicism, Margaret Thatcher, no fan of the Commonwealth, withdrew the UK from UNESCO in 1985. The CEWC had its government grant axed in 1994, subsequently forcing it to suspend operation and merge with the Citizenship Foundation, itself morphing recently into Young Citizens in furtherance of its 10 year Strategic Plan.  

It strikes me that in stark contrast to the often-flawed operation of the UN and many of its affiliated agencies that become mired in geo-political conflict, the Commonwealth has not only successfully weathered its difficulties, it's soldiered-on and recently launched many imaginative initiatives that seek to tackle climate change, education, trade, women's rights, security and good governance. The extremely difficult legacy issue of LGBT rights remains, but there has been some progress in encouraging and supporting jurisdictions wishing to consider reform. It's even likely that Zimbabwe will rejoin should concerns regarding elections be allayed.     

I'm really happy to say that in the warm London sunshine last week, I rediscovered an antidote to cynicism. My interest, respect, hope and aspiration for a better world through the amazingly reinvigorated Commonwealth of Nations has been renewed. I defy anyone not to be similarly inspired by what's been quietly going on, mostly ignored and unnoticed here in the UK, but admirably outlined variously on their website, CHOGM 2018 Report and massive Ministers Handbook.         


  1. Always liked this about Commonwealth of Nations:

    "All members have an equal say – regardless of size or economic stature. This ensures even the smallest member countries have a voice in shaping the Commonwealth."

    1. except if you dont want to be ruled by big ears then shut it.
      Or perhaps if you are fed up with being payed less than a living wage in a UK dependency tax haven full of office blocks with empty offices next door to your shack, again just shut it and die in poverty

  2. Interesting and informative piece =- thank you.


    One day folk may realise that Prison is part of a complex Criminal Justice System - that includes Probation, other agencies and the integration of the court and supportive systems. - but not yet awhile.

    "Britain's prison crisis caused by 'poor political decisions' by Conservatives and huge cuts, former head of jails says

    Exclusive: Former director-general of HM Prison Service says violence driven by ‘budget cuts, poor political decisions and frequent changes of political direction’
    Lizzie Dearden Home Affairs Correspondent"

    It is Phil Wheatley who is quoted.

    The promotion for the publication of this years Prisons Handbook - includes news that the ousted IMB chair Faith Spear from Suffolk writes via Twitter - "Honoured that this 2018 Handbook has been dedicated to me. Thank you."

    A link to the Independent article I hope follows here


    1. “Poor political decisions” by the Conservatives and huge budget cuts have caused the crisis in Britain’s jails, the former head of the prison service has said.

      Phil Wheatley accused the justice secretary, David Gauke, of attempting to shift blame for violence and disorder in British prisons from his own government to the spread of former legal highs among prisoners.

      In comments seen exclusively by The Independent ahead of publication in the annual Prisons Handbook, Mr Wheatley said the coalition government inherited a prison service that was “performing better than it had ever done” in 2010.

      The civil servant, who served as director-general of HM Prison Service and its successor, the National Offender Management Service, from 2003 to 2010, said austerity saw the Ministry of Justice’s budget promptly slashed by almost a quarter and the situation worsened by different policies under six justice secretaries.

      “Mr Gauke and ... Rory Stewart however appear intent on blaming the crisis they have inherited on new psychoactive substances (NPS), rather than budget cuts, poor political decisions and frequent changes of political direction,” he added.

      “It is simply not acceptable in a comparatively rich democratic country to run unsafe prisons that do not provide decent conditions.”

      Reoffending rates have also increased under the Conservatives’ tenure and the government was heavily criticised for putting the public at risk and increasing the number of convicts recalled to jail by part-privatising the probation service.

      Mr Wheatley said the existence of a nationwide prisons crisis unleashed by the failures was “undeniable”, with the staggering rise in violence starting in 2013.

      “As staff numbers and experience declined, so the incidence of violence, self-harm and suicide started to rise,” he added.

      Mr Wheatley also raised alarm about the loss of experienced prison officers, as statistics show that a third of staff have less than three years’ experience.

      “There is a causative link between staff reductions and a frightening increase in violence,” he added.

      “Neither the Scottish Prison Service nor the Northern Irish Service, where staffing ratios of officers to prisoners remain much more generous, have experienced the same rise in violence and self-harm.”

      Mr Wheatley made a set of urgent recommendations including increasing staff numbers, improving retention and bringing policy and operations management together.

      “Above all the senior management of the service, who have loyally done their duty trying to accommodate the frequent changes introduced by a fluctuating cast of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politicians, should be allowed to get on with managing prisons sensibly – rather than having to spend fruitless hours handling the changing whims of their ministers,” he concluded.

  4. I think royalty is far from an historical accident anymore than the wider aristocracy was an accident. The freedoms we have today were not gifted by kings and queens, rather our common ancestors struggled and died to gain sovereignty.

    It seems to be open season on Jeremy Corbyn: anyone can have a pop at him, whatever the subject matter. I suppose you could compare the current queen's deft politics with those of her uncle – another accident of history? - and his Nazi sympathies. As for Jeremy Corbyn, he was one of a few MPs who voted against the immigration legislation that led directly to the Windrush injustices – which some still insist on calling an accident.

    1. except Corbyn is just as much a part of the problem as all the other totally incompetent idiots who are supposed to 'represent' us.
      Hes just there to 'manage' your expectations.
      The last true and only sovereign was Alfred the great, end of

  5. I find it difficult not to see the commonwealth as something born out of exploited periods of history. I think of slavery, the Raj, opium wars, transportation and botany bay. It came from a mindset of superiority, greed and a disregard of how that greed for wealth was satisfied. I think thetlikes of Boris Johnson, Bill Cash, Jacob Reese Mogg really belong to that part of history, and would be happy to recreate it if they could.
    My own heritage is Irish, from the Republic but only a mile or two from the boarder. I spent a lot of time there during school holidays, Christmases or when my parents were waging their own personal war with each other. It was a nationalist community where being so close to the boarder the 'troubles' were a topic of everyday conversation. I guess my political views were shaped by the community I lived in, and still think of N.I as being part of the commonwealth and not part of the UK.
    I hated the troubles however, and wondered where it would all end up or even if they would ever end.
    And then an amazing thing happened. The Good Friday Agreement. Powersharing Assembly. And even McGuinness and Paisley became friends. Troops were withdrawn, paramilitaries put down arms and different factions would actually sit in the same room and talk. They seldom agreed, but a peace setteled, and everyone was greatful for that.
    As the Brexit referendum result was announced my first thought was how problematic it was going to be for N.I. How do you seperate the UK from Europe without a boarder, especially as the people of N.I have dual nationality? Its sure to stir up feeling and resentment in certain quarters, and it may even imoact on the peace process itself.
    Although there's been a relative peace in N.I for 20years now, communities are still divided by walls, and 98% of schools and housing are segregated by religion.
    I was disapointed when the Powersharing Assembly collapsed, but I was enraged when May agreed a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP, who opposed the GFA.
    Whatever else May has done, I despise her for that decision, and lack of understanding of the possible consequences it may bring.
    The N.I issue could still bring down this government. Its no longer a division between north and south, its a frontier between Europe and the UK, its not just about the goods that cross over each day.


    1. Powerful contribution as always Getafix. I'm also from similar humble beginnings and am disgusted with the May bribery for power at literally any cost. We can only hope and pray that these robbers are brought to account for the decimation of our Service and the wider working class communities of the U.K.

    2. The commonwealth gives status to many small nations, so why not! The commonwealth may have been built from slavery and oppression, but the so was America and many other countries.

    3. I'm sure native American Indians are thankful for the status they now enjoy in the USA.

    4. Exactly the point. And nobody is saying they disagree with or want to get rid of America.

  6. https://www.thestar.co.uk/news/police-boss-blames-privatisation-for-damaging-work-to-cut-crime-1-9129110

  7. Was Probation an accident of history? If so pity we don't have a champion like QE2. Anyone, who are our Probation Service champions? If you are out there, speak up please.

  8. And it is not just the Windrush Commonwealth who are affected by mean shamely immoral anti immigrant rhetoric as increasingly will become plain as this sickening story unfolds.

  9. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180423-the-unique-way-the-dutch-treat-mentally-ill-prisoners