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Telling the WW2 story of the Little Ships of Jersey

This week I should have been in Jersey taking part in the re-enactment of the rescue of the demolition crews and troops from St Malo in the middle of June 1940. Of course, the pandemic knocked that on the head.

Instead of a full re-enactment, yachts from St Helier Yacht Club staged a sail past around the harbour at St Helier led by Fiona (pictured in St Helier harbour), one of the 20 little ships from Jersey that answered the Admiralty’s plea for help in 1940. This was covered for the BBC by Robert Hall, a network correspondent who has been in Jersey for the duration of the pandemic and he kindly asked me to provide some context for his report.

BBC report on the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of British troops from St Malo by the Little Ships of Jersey, broadcast on 15 June 2020

The last-ditch rescue of the demolition teams was part of Operation Aerial, the largest element of the evacuation plan that swung into action after Dunkirk. When Dunkirk fell on 4 June there were still around 160,000 British troops, 25,000 Polish and Czech troops and almost 30,000 civilians who still needed to be rescued from France as the German forces swept through the country. During the rest of June they were brought back to England through ports along the Normandy and Biscay coasts. St Malo was one of those ports.

Over 20,000 troops had been evacuated from St Malo and as the Germans approached the demolition crews were sent in to do as much damage to the port facilities as possible in the time that was left. The problem was how to get them back as large ships were by then potentially in range of German guns and planes. This is where the 20 Little Ships of Jersey came into their own.

• This story, along with many others, some never previously published, will be in my book Bring Them Home: Churchill’s Second Miracle of Deliverance. This is almost complete, although this week’s broadcast has prompted more people to contact me with their relatives’ stories: I am very grateful to them and will waive as many of them as possible into the narrative.

More about Operation Aerial and my book

Routine is vital: We’ve got form on that front

I was very impressed by an interview on BBC News yesterday with journalist and presenter Joan Bakewell. She spoke about the importance of creating and sustaining routines while we sit at home, isolated from everything we consider normal.

Bakewell is 86 and explained that she had been unwell for some weeks before the coronavirus started its deadly progress in the UK. As it emerged as a threat she asked her doctor what she should do and was advised to self-isolate. She took this advice and so already has several weeks experience.

She stressed the importance of creating routines and sticking to them, including exercise, reading, taking up new hobbies and generally keeping busy in as structured a way as possible. It was persuasive and very pertinent.

I have worked for myself for nearly seven years and have long got used to working from home. From the start I eschewed the novelty of sitting around in my pyjamas all day. Get up, get dressed, have breakfast and start work has worked well for me. Never let yourself slide into having lazy day. By all means give yourself a day off but do it with a sense of purpose. I have run my life that way with a degree of success. It might help others now facing that challenge suddenly and unexpectedly.

The British have some interesting form in maintaining routine in the face of adversity. I have found a couple of stories in my many researches for my books.

One is told in Fighting for the Empire, the story of my wife’s grandfather, Thomas Kelly, a doctor in the Indian Medical Service.

In 1904 and 1905 he found himself in a remote province of Persia fighting an outbreak of the plague that was threatening to get out of hand. It was a desolate place and a very dangerous job. The famous Swedish explorer Sven Hedin arrived while Kelly was battling the menace of the plague. He was accommodated at the British Consulate (pictured) and could hardly believe the British determination to maintain certain standards and routine. Only a few weeks before an angry mob had attempted to burn this building down.

“Six Englishmen, without ladies, were staying in Seistan, and with them I spent nine memorable days. Englishmen have a knack of making themselves at home in whatever part of the world their lot may cast them, and even here in this wretched Nasretabad they lived much as in London. They did not come unshaved to luncheon in the great saloon, and at dinner they appeared in spruce attire, with starched shirts, dinner jackets, and patent leather shoes. And then we sank into the soft armchairs, and took coffee, with prime cigars, and, while the gramophone reminded us of the divas and tenors of the great world, whisky and soda were served, and we talked of Iran, Tibet, and the plague. We were in high spirits; and it was difficult to believe that all the while the angel of death was roaming about in search of his hapless victims.”

In the book on the evacuations from France in June 1940 I am currently writing there is the story of the playwright Rupert Downing and his escape from Paris to a port near the Spanish border on a bicycle. This took the best part of two weeks as he and a female colleague battled through the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees fleeing the advancing Germans.

Downing was especially proud of his attempts to maintain some sort of standards – “some thread of tradition, custom, civilized habit, whatever you like to call it”. Having packed his shaving kit he was determined to make use of it every day, even when it meant crouching by a cold stream as dawn broke. It was an objective he proudly achieved.

These things matter in times of crisis and stress. Perhaps we can learn from them and from Joan Bakewell.

Stay safe.

Let’s make sure we cast BAME actors in authentic roles

Laurence Fox’s ill-informed comments about the appearance of a Sikh soldier in the gripping World War One drama 1917 sparked a debate about the need for more roles for actors from a wider range of ethnic backgrounds. Some of the responses raise the spectre of lazy casting undermining the authenticity of the BAME story in British society.

Let’s take WW1.

Of course, there were Sikhs fighting on the Western Front. There were many Indian regiments – Sikh, Muslim and Hindu – deployed in all theatres of the war. They were, however, separate regiments and not integrated with British Army regiments. The appearance of a Sikh soldier in a lorry carrying white British troops probably wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, although one could quibble that he would have been in a slightly different uniform. He would have been quickly returned to his own unit, however.

Had he been wounded he would have been taken to a separate Indian Field Ambulance and would not have been treated in the British Field Hospital shown in the closing sequences of the film. The separation of the medical facilities with the Royal Army Medical Corps running the hospitals for British (white) soldiers and the Indian Medical Service running those for Indian soldiers was inefficient and part of what we would now call the institutional racism endemic in the British Empire.

An Indian Field Ambulance in Mesopotamia in 1916

It was not until the latter stages of the war that Combined medical units were formed but even they still had separate Indian wards, a division that continued into the Second World War. It took another battle to allow highly qualified British nurses to treat the Indian soldiers in these Combined hospitals so that they received the same quality of care as their British Army counterparts. All of these facts are evidenced in my book Fighting for the Empire, the story of an Irish Catholic doctor who joined the Indian Medical Service and fought the worst consequences of this institutional racism. Doctors who chose to serve in the IMS were often looked down on by their supposed colleagues in the RAMC and dismissed as “Sikh fellows”, the implication being they had in some way gone native. That was the reality of early 20th century British attitudes to race even when BAME soldiers were laying down their lives for the Empire.

There are some great stories to be told about the heroism of soldiers from different ethnic backgrounds. A handful even made the breakthrough into the mainstream British Army, the most outstanding being the black professional footballer Walter Tull. He was actually commissioned as a second lieutenant and was killed in France in March 1918. All through his career as a footballer and as a soldier he had to fight discrimination and prejudice.

Where does this leave the film industry?

Quite simply, it needs to keep hold of authenticity. The response to the legitimate complaints about the lack of substantial roles, at least in historical films such as 1917, should not just to be to cast a few more BAME actors in a way that masks or blunts the struggles they faced. It must be about authenticity. Anything less will do all of us a great disservice.

Great to see the All Party Insurance & Financial Services Group flourishing

I am delighted to see that the All Party Parliamentary Group on Insurance & Financial Services is going from strength-to-strength in its new partnership with the Chartered Insurance Institute and with former insurance broker, now Tory MP, Craig Tracey at the helm.

It is nearly 30 years since I helped launch the group as part of an initiative by Post Magazine. The mission was simple: to improve communications between the insurance industry and Parliament which were then at a low ebb. A series of major pieces of legislation had gone through over the previous three or four years that had adversely impacted on the insurance industry and it was frequently the target of unjustified criticism by MPs and ministers. Those were the days of huge Tory majorities (nothing changes) and recruiting Labour MPs to get the group established was a real struggle but we got there with the help of Muriel Turner, a Labour peer and former trade union official in the insurance industry. She persuaded Labour MPs it was worth supporting and it has never looked back.

The group has tackled a wide range of issues over the years and played a significant part in the formation of Pool Re, the introduction of equalisation reserves, securing compensation for people miss-sold home reversion plans and getting tougher action on uninsured driving. It also played a major role in finding a solution to the challenge of providing insurance for flood-prone properties, which led to the creation of Flood Re.

Tracey: former insurance broker at the helm of the All Party Group

Craig Tracey is only the fourth chair of the group in those thirty years, the others being Sir Robert McCrindle, John Greenway and Jonathan Evans, all Conservatives. He was recently re-elected and has a strong panel of fellow officers to support him, including some new faces.

Lord (David) Hunt (Con), Co-Chair
Barry Gardiner MP (Lab), Officer
Sir Peter Bottomley (Con), Officer
Rob Roberts MP (Con), Officer
Christian Wakeford MP (Con), Officer

Access to insurance has been a key theme for the group recently and it will be returning to that with its first public session of the year:

• Monday 30 March – Access to Insurance: Improving consumer access to protection for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions – 5pm to 7pm, Committee Room 5, Palace of Westminster

It has also booked two further public sessions before the summer recess:

• Monday 4 May – Topic tbc – 4.30pm to 6.30pm Committee Room 5, Palace of Westminster

• Monday 1 June – Future Skills across Financial Services – 4.30pm to 6.30pm Committee Room 5, Palace of Westminster

Tracey is also keen on reaching out to members across the UK to set up surgeries, as part of improving the engagement between Parliament and the profession. It will be interesting to see what comes of this bold initiative.

The group is now on Twitter – @IFSAPPG – and says it will be using it to share relevant news items and for live tweets about events and meetings it holds.

Anyone wanting further information about the group and its activities should contact:

Shayne Halfpenny-Ray
Secretariat, IFSAPPG
Chartered Insurance Institute
T:  +44(0)20 7417 4417
M: +44(0)79 2041 0368
shayne.halfpenny-ray@cii.co.uk

The many dilemmas of Labour’s leadership

As the Labour leadership election moves into its next phase with the five surviving candidates looking for support among constituency parties and affiliated groups, everyone with an interest in the long-term health of British politics should take an intelligent interest in the outcome. Doing so exposes some serious dilemmas.

I am viewing this through the prism of a Liberal Democrat who has always believed the party – and its predecessor – should plant itself firmly on the centre left of British politics, seeing many in the Labour Party as natural allies on issues of progressive reform but parting company with them over the role of the state. From that perspective, it is disappointing that Clive Lewis fell at the first hurdle. His advocacy of electoral reform was very welcome but it now seems unlikely that any of the other candidates will embrace that essential step towards modernising our democracy.

What of those who are left in the contest?

It does look, at this stage, to be shaping up as a contest between Kier Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, although Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips are both running vigorous campaigns. Emily Thornberry appears to be the rank outsider.

There are plenty of people, especially Liberal Democrats I speak to, who think that Long-Bailey would make Labour unelectable. I tend to agree with that analysis. This is taken to be a good thing. Of that, I am not so convinced.

First, we need a credible opposition that looks electable in order to keep the government on its toes. That applies whoever is in power.

Second, the idea that another far left Labour leader would clear the centre ground for the Liberal Democrats, especially with the Tories led from the right, seems to be a complete fallacy.

If this was true why did the Lib Dems do so badly in the recent General Election? The centre ground was wide open, yet they failed dismally. We know alot of the blame can be laid at the door of the ill-conceived Revoke Article 50 policy but fear of a Corbyn government also had a large part to play. The Liberals do not fare well when large numbers of people fear a left wing socialist government.

British voters recoil from the prospect of a left-wing socialist government

The scenario was similar to the 1980s. The Tories were led from the right by Margaret Thatcher and Labour had two successive leaders from the left – Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. The Liberals were joined in the centre by the high profile Social Democratic Party. The result was three elections of relative failure and frustration for the Liberal/SDP Alliance and later the Liberal Democrats.

It took the resurgence of Labour under John Smith and Tony Blair to create a political climate in which the Liberal Democrats could flourish nationally. Without a Labour leader that could be easily demonised as a left wing monster, moderate voters felt safe in voting for a centre party rather than swallowing hard and taking cover by voting Conservative. Our polarising electoral system constantly forces people into such unpalatable choices.

Jo Swinson naively played to this dynamic during the campaign by appearing to be more hostile to Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson, although she would have been dammed if she did and dammed if she didn’t, such is the difficulty of fighting from the centre when Labour is led from the left.

It will be better for the health of British politics and the future of the Liberal centre ground (which I make no apologies for caring about) if Labour opts for the dull common sense offered by Starmer over the left-wing purity of Long-Bailey. As the 1990s and early 2000s proved, a Liberal Democrat resurgence does Labour no harm as it takes votes from the Tories.

Revoke Article 50: the folly of policymaking by petition

There is still a vigorous debate raging in Liberal Democrat circles about the Revoke Article 50 policy that Jo Swinson and her team unwisely thrust to the forefront of their campaign and which cost them dear in terms of lost votes and seats.

One of the frequent justifications advanced by those still vainly defending this policy is that it had wide support among the general public. The only evidence they can produce for this claim is a single petition on the UK Government and Parliament website that attracted 6,103,057 “signatures”. This prompted me to reflect on the value of online petitions which are now commonplace, with many of us constantly urged to sign them.

This petition attracted considerably more than the 3,696,419 votes the Liberal Democrats received in last month’s General Election and shows the folly of being seduced by the large numbers some of these petitions quickly attract. Online petitions are created in haste and all too easily signed in haste with little real thought given to the subject, its implications and consequences, let alone any potential complexities. This one is a case study that proves all of those points.

It is badly worded. Leaving aside the poor grammar, it makes endless assumptions about the state of the Brexit debate in the middle of last year, the shift – or otherwise – in public support for Brexit, the likelihood of a second referendum and completely fails to address the question of “what next?” if Article 50 was revoked.

Clearly, many people clicked to sign this petition without giving it a moment’s thought. It appears the Liberal Democrat leadership did the same. I doubt very much whether there were ever six million people who really believed in Revoking Article 50. Interestingly, some earlier “Revoke Article 50” petitions on websites such as Change.org attracted only a few hundred or a few thousands signatures. This should have prompted Swinson’s team to pause before adopting this as their showpiece policy for the General Election.

Obviously, some hard core Liberal Democrat supporters believed it. Perhaps some Labour supporters believed in it too but there it ends. It was naive to believe otherwise.

Lib Dems seem powerless to stop the Labour squeeze

This has been the most dismal General Election campaign in my lifetime. The issues we face as a country have never been greater outside of wartime but no party has been capable of creating an engaging vision that addresses societal and economic divisions, the spectre of isolationism and the threat of climate change.

The two major parties have lurched to their extremes. Both are led by people it would have been unthinkable to have had at their helm a decade ago. Both have expelled or forced out moderating influences and both have produced manifestos that are frightening in their extremity. In doing so, they have left a gapping hole in the centre of British politics. It should have been an open goal for the Liberal Democrats but they have contrived to miss it completely.

Now, as we enter the last week of the campaign, the Liberal Democrats are being subjected to a relentless squeeze by Labour and seem powerless to stop it.

There are several reasons for this.

First, the Liberal Democrats themselves took an extreme position on Brexit: Revoke Article 50.

This was a worthwhile attempt to break out of the sterility of the Brexit debate but it was not thought through. It was based on the premise that it could happen only if the Liberal Democrats achieved a majority of MPs. Indeed, to demonstrate true democratic legitimacy for this policy the Liberal Democrats would have had to have commanded well over 50% of the popular vote: clearly, a fantasy.

That was not the biggest flaw, however. What really let them down was not having a narrative to support that policy in terms of what would come next. To my mind the only sensible development of that policy would have been to argue that revoking Article 50 would give us time to re-set the Brexit debate, free of the pressure of endless deadlines. This could have been used to sort out some of the important unresolved issues such as what happens to health insurance, motor insurance, expatriate pension rights and so on. Having done this, and this is the important point Jo Swinson’s team ignored, the decision could then be put back to the country in a referendum with either May’s or Johnson’s deal plus clarifications against a Remain option. If this referendum voted to Leave then, with a deal already agreed, this could happen quickly. The failure to promise a referendum has turned away people who would have otherwise supported the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats should have had Labour on the back-foot over Brexit. Many Labour MPs support Brexit. They consistently voted against holding another referendum in the last Parliament. Corbyn talks about negotiating a “sensible” Brexit deal, one that many Labour MPs will be able to support in a referendum. Labour cannot be trusted to stop Brexit but the Liberal Democrats have failed to seize opportunities to hammer that message home.

Labour is eating into the Liberal Democrat vote

The obsession with having a distinctive Brexit policy seems to have left the Liberal Democrats exposed on broader policies. There are many worthy policies in their manifesto but they are not drawn together by any sort of coherant narrative. This has allowed other parties, especially Labour, to construct their own narrative for the Liberal Democrats. With the centre ground wide open the Liberal Democrats have failed to position themselves on the political spectrum with any clarity. This has allowed Labour to position them as centre-right and start the relentless squeeze of their vote.

This Labour campaign is intensifying. Look at the social media posts of Labour supporters. They are full of terms such as “LibCons” and “Yellow Tories” and claims that Swinson will support Johnson in a hung Parliament. the disastrous legacy of the Coalition looms large here. The Liberal Democrats have done little to combat this and are now losing the votes of progressives who would normally be repelled by Labour’s statist agenda.

They appear powerless to stop Labour squeezing their vote. It could be grim week for them.

World Communications Day: what it means to be a journalist

This Sunday is known as World Communications Sunday in the Roman Catholic Church. It is an opportunity to reflect on many aspects of what communications means in the modern world.

It is also an opportunity for those of us who work in the media to reflect on our roles and the values that guide us.

When Pope John Paul II came to the UK in 1982 he handed a simply typed note to all the journalists covering the trip. It was addressed to “My friends in the communications media”.

It was reprinted on the front cover of UK Press Gazette that week. I cut it out and framed it and it has hung by my desk, wherever I have lived, ever since. This is what he wrote.

••••••••••••••••••••••

Wherever the sounds of transmit are heard, wherever the images you capture are seen, wherever the words you report are read, there is your neighbour. There is a person you must love, someone for whose total well being you must work – and sometimes go without sleep and miss your meals.

You are the instruments through whom that person – and millions of others – enjoys a wider experience and is helped to become a more effective member of the world community, a true neighbour to others.

Your profession, by its very nature, makes you servants, willing servants, of the community. Many of the members of that community will differ from you in political views, in material prospects, in religious conviction or in moral performance.

The message stills hangs on the wall next to my desk

As good communicators, you serve them all the same – with love and with truth: indeed with a love of truth.

As good communicators, you build bridges to unite, not walls to divide. As good communicators, you work out of the conviction that love and service of neighbour are the most important business in your life.

All your concern then will be for the community’s good. You will feed it on the truth. You will enlighten its conscience and serve as its peacemaker.

You will set before the community standards that will keep it stretching for a way of life and a mode of behaviour worthy of its potential, worthy of human dignity.

You will inspire the community, fire its ideals, stimulate its imagination – if necessary taunt it – into getting the best out of itself, the human best.

You will neither yield to any inducement nor bend before any threat which might seek to deflect you from total integrity in your professional service.

••••••••••••••••••••••

I know many people reading that will scoff because they have just read or heard something they disagree with and think my fellow journalists fall far short of those ideals. Before you dismiss it I ask you to bear a few things in mind.

We are only human. In my experience, most journalists do strive to achieve many of those ideals but our human frailty means we often fall short. Our job means our shortcomings, mistakes and errors of judgement are there for all to see and criticise. The scrutiny is constant and intense. We should not be automatically condemned for our failings but instead be encouraged to do better next time.

Many journalists face immense pressures because of what they do. 54 journalists around the world were murdered for doing their job last year. 250 journalists are currently in prison for doing their job. Even those of us who haven’t faced such extreme dangers still live with threats, sometimes physical, sometimes financial. I have been threatened on many occasions by people and firms with deep pockets, seen libel writs with my name on them land on my desk and faced demands to reveal sources for doing no more than telling the truth, truths that some people would rather not be known but which I have believed a greater good dictates should be dragged out into the light.

We are not perfect and know that journalism is not a profession that will ever command widespread respect, at least not until it is gone. But the overwhelming majority of us will never stop seeking the truth, nor forget it is the interests of the communities we serve – our readers and audiences – that come first.

There is still a long way to go to produce a Remain majority

There is plenty of excitement among the Remain supporting parties, especially the Liberal Democrats, over the trends in the opinion polls for the European Parliament elections. They believe the polls show a significant move towards remaining in the EU if there is another a referendum.

I don’t want to rain on their parade but I just don’t see it.

I wrote a week ago that it is was being optimistic to believe a Remain majority is emerging in the polls. That is still the case, even after the huge YouGov/Time poll that came out yesterday and showed the Liberal Democrats overtaking the Conservatives.

If you take the latest BBC poll tracker and break down the support for the different parties into Remain and Leave, it suggests there has been very little movement in public opinion since 2016.

The combined Brexit Party/UKIP vote is 35%. That is the Hard Brexit vote.

You have to assume that the Conservative vote is a Soft Brexit vote as sticking with May has to mean accepting her Withdrawal Agreement. That is another 12%.

The pro-Remain vote is still fragmented across several parties with the momentum with the Liberal Democrats as the standard bearers. However, it still only adds up to 31%.

This brings us to the Labour vote, currently on 22%. Out on the election trail the Liberal Democrats and others have been keen to label Labour as a pro-Brexit party, not unreasonable as a campaigning tactic as Corbyn has been working to facilitate Brexit. However, we know that a significant proportion of the Labour vote – at least in the south east – is pro-Remain. In its northern working class heartlands it is a different matter.

Some of the Leave supporting Labour voters will have defected to the Brexit Party. We also know from some of the polling analysis done over the last week that a significant proportion of Remain supporting Labour voters have defected to the Liberal Democrats or Greens.

If we assume that the current Labour vote would split 2:1 in favour of Remain, where does that leave us?

It gives a 54:46 majority for Brexit. If you take a more optimistic pro-Remain view and assume the Labour vote would split 3:1 in your favour you end up with a 52:48 Brexit majority. If you impose the 2:1 assumption on the YouGov/Times poll you also get a 52:48 Brexit majority.

Has anything changed since 2016?

Where is this Remain majority so many claim?

The Financial Times has produced some interesting analysis of the likely voting intentions in the European Parliament elections in two weeks time. It exposes some of the shifts caused by the creation of two new parties and the threat to the Conservatives from the Brexit Party.

It also shows we are a long way short of seeing a majority emerge for remaining in the European Union.

The FT analysis shows the Hard Brexit parties already garnering 32% against the anti-Brexit parties 29%. In the middle are Labour and the Conservatives. The FT shies away from labelling them on the Brexit spectrum but they must be considered soft Brexit parties as they are both working to facilitate Brexit. Where is the Remain majority now?

Of course, there are supporters of both major parties who are in favour of remaining in the EU and who will stick with voting for those parties regardless of the fact both are led by people pointing firmly towards the EU exit door. Some of those supporters will also be in favour of a second referendum. Despite those important caveats, what the analysis does show is that claims of a major switch in public sentiment towards Remain are misplaced.

Most of those campaigning for a second (or should that be third?) referendum seem to be desperately naive in believing it will deliver a majority for Remain. They style their campaign The People’s Vote as if they know which way “the people” will vote once it takes place. The arrogance of that stance has unnecessarily angered those who want to leave the EU and has made the Remain campaign an easy target for Farage and his “the elites are against you” message, as crude and dangerous as that may be.

The only way to stop us leaving the EU is to have a second referendum but it is a course fraught with danger.

I find it hard to see how it might unify the country. The 2016 referendum surely shows us that referenda are divisive and polarising. Why should another one be any different?

What the voting intentions for the European Parliament elections show us – if we want to see them as a proxy referendum – it that the country is as divided as ever on this issue. There is no guarantee that “the people” will vote as the campaigners for a second referendum assume. It may produce a majority for Remain, but what if that is 52:48? Does that beat 52:48 the other way?

There is a real danger that another referendum will just deepen the divide and perpetuate the arguments which is why I remain a very lukewarm supporter of the idea. If Parliament cannot pass a Withdrawal Agreement then it will be a Hard Brexit or a referendum and I would certainly support the latter and campaign for a Remain vote but not with any great optimism that it will produce the result I want or solve anything in the long-run.