Drugs, denials, and British politics

It’s always fun when you can wring a denial out of a politician, and the denials are rolling in: Unspecified people who do equally unspecified work at Chevening–an estate used by Britain’s secretary of state–reported finding “suspected class A drugs” after parties thrown by Liz Truss, the lettuce who became prime minister but was then secretary of state.

Lettuce? Well, yes. Her tenure as prime minister was so short that a lettuce publicly outlasted her. She’ll never live it down. 

What kind of class A drugs? Something that registered as cocaine when it was tested with a swab that changes color when it gets high. Or, more accurately, when it comes into contact with cocaine.

Irrelevant photo: This is from our recent cold snap.

Is cocaine legal in Britain? Nope. Possession carries a sentence of up to seven years or an unlimited fine or both, and in July the government launched (or anyway, announced; I can’t swear that they did any more than that) a crackdown on casual users. 

Casual users? Yes. Those are the kind of users who have passports, because it was going to confiscate them. That’s a more fitting punishment for a high-end user than jail time, which is a better fit for the low-end, no-passport, no-invite-to-Chevening kind of drug user.

An unspecified insider says cocaine’s used widely in Whitehall (“Whitehall” being shorthand for British government offices) and around Parliament. And you know how it is: These are important people. You can’t just toss them in jail when they do something illegal.

During the ten minutes when Truss was prime minister, one of her spokes-salads said cracking down on illegal drugs was a priority. 

Cleaners report finding white powder at no less a residence than 10 Downing Street after two of the parties that were held during lockdown back when Boris Johnson was prime minister. Johnson outlasted many lettuces as well as a head of broccoli, and although several barbers are rumored to have attempted damage control on his hair he outran them all. 

No one’s saying either Truss or Johnson put the powder up their own personal noses. In fact, Johnson’s said not to have been at either of the No. 10 parties that left powder behind. But it does raise questions about the culture around them and what’s tolerated at high levels and not at lower ones. 

So what about those denials? 

When the Guardian, which broke the story, asked for a comment, Truss’s spokes-salad said, “If there were evidence that this alleged activity had occurred during her use of Chevening, Ms Truss would have expected to have been informed and for the relevant authorities to have properly investigated the matter. As it is, the Guardian has produced no evidence to support these spurious claims.”

A spokescomb for Boris Johnson said, “Boris Johnson is surprised by these allegations since he has not previously been made aware of any suggestions of drug use in 10 Downing Street and as far as he is aware no such claims were made to Sue Gray or to any other investigators.

“It was a feature of Mr Johnson’s premiership that he strongly campaigned against drug use, especially middle-class drug use. His government made huge investments in tougher policing to help roll up county lines drugs gangs, which cause so much misery. He repeatedly called for harsher punishments for the use and distribution of class A drugs.”

A spokesdriver for No 10’s current U-turn expert said, “The Guardian has provided no evidence to support these claims. If there were substantive claims, we would expect these to be reported to the police.”

So there you go. Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.

Larry the Cat refused to comment but is alleged to have a serious catnip habit. As for me, I don’t usually post in the middle of the week, but this was too much fun to ignore.

“A very British way” of saying no: It’s the news from Britain

“A very British way” of saying no: It’s the news from Britain

Our most recent ex-prime minister, Liz Truss, may not have outlasted that famous lettuce, but she hasn’t dropped out of the news. 

In spite of being prime minister for only 44 days, she and the loyalists who stayed in place around her insisted she had the right to draw up a resignation honors list–a list outgoing prime ministers create to nominate supporters, donors, and hangers-on for knighthoods or seats in the House of Lords.  

I’m not sure if a knighthood’s worth much, financially speaking, but a member of the Lords can collect £323 for any day they bother to show up, which a lot of them don’t. And they get bragging rights and can get people to call Lord or Baroness Whatsit and wear a very nice ermine robe on dress-up days. 

At least it’s very nice if you go for that sort of thing, although it’s a lot like a bridesmaid’s dress: Where can you wear it once the wedding’s over? 

That may be why they’re lent to the Lords, not given. 

Sorry, did I go off topic there? 

Irrelevant photo: a neighbor’s dahlia

Other than the money, the robe, and the bragging rights, I’m not sure what a person gets out of being in the House of Lords, but who’s there matters to the rest of us because they have a political impact. The more of its loyalists a party packs in there, the better. For it, if not for the country.

There’s a certain irony in a party–the Conservatives–adding to the House of Lords after it argued for slimming down the Commons needed because it was too expensive, but that was a while ago and it’s okay because we’ve all forgotten about it.

But we were talking about our most recent ex-prime minister, Liz of the Lettuce. There was a lot of push and pull over whether she should get to submit an honor list–or for that matter whether Boris Johnson, who lasted longer but left office in disgrace and is surely still hoping to bumble back in, should. Rumor has it that the word honor filed a lawsuit at being associated with either of them, but I haven’t been able to confirm that in the responsible press.

Now Buckingham Palace has stepped in to handle the situation in what an anonymous source (this is from the responsible press) described as “a very British way,” telling Truss that she can’t submit a long list. That apparently means she can submit a short one, but at least someone’s setting limits.

How will they do that?

“It will be a case of . . . you don’t want to embarrass the king, do you?” No formal rules govern the system of resignation honors (that may in itself be very British: This is a country with an unwritten constitution, after all) but tradition dictates that the new prime minister doesn’t object to the former prime minister’s nominees. So “don’t embarrass the king”? Tradition allows for that. 

As an ex-PM, Truss is also eligible for the £115,000 per year that former prime ministers are allowed to collect in order to fund a private office to handle the public role that’s at least theoretically involved in being a former prime minister, and there was, briefly, a flap about whether 45 days in office justified the money. No one seems to be arguing that she should get the money, but we’ve all gone on to new outrages since then. 

We have the attention span of a lettuce lately.

There were (and still are) assorted rumors that the money was a pension. It isn’t. 

*

When Boris Johnson dropped out of the latest contest for prime minister, leaving the way open for Rishi Sunak to waltz in without Conservative Party members voting on their–and our–new leader, speculation was that he did it because he didn’t have enough support. 

Not so. It turns out he did have enough support, and he also had some advice (or so people in the know believe) that if he lost to Sunak it would cut into his potential earnings on the international speaking circuit. So to hell with leading the country. Let’s make cash.

Johnson still hasn’t submitted his list of resignation honors. We may have some outrage left when that happens or we may be tapped out by then. 

*

Now that Truss is safely out of office, a former aide’s come forward to say that when she was justice secretary she avoided appearing on BBC’s Question Time by claiming family members had died–ones the aides described as “minor people like aunts and cousins and things.”  

Forgive me for getting personal about this, but I’m an aunt. Also a cousin. And a thing. So if you happen to be one of my relatives, please understand that I do not appreciate being killed off, even fictionally, no matter how minor I am in your life or how badly you want to avoid some commitment you made. I’m surprisingly central to my own life, thanks.

Eventually she either ran out of relatives or it all got too obvious and she had to appear on the show.

*

In his first day or so as prime minister, a photo of Rishi Sunak appeared, looking crisp and tailored and being stalked by someone with a lettuce (complete with googly eyes) on his head. The humor there strikes me as particularly British, although I’m damned if I can explain why. If anyone else can, I’d love to hear it. Sadly, I’ve lost the link. It was on Twitter, I think, which is another way of saying I’ll never find it, and googling Sunak, lettuce, and googly eyes got me nowhere. 

And here I thought I had such a good relationship with Lord Google.

 

Speaking of very British ways…

The 1960s Profumo scandal involved British cabinet ministers, a Russian spy, and a young woman who was involved with all of the above. Newly released files note that MI5 pegged the Russian as a spy when he arrived at the London embassy as an assistant naval attache because he didn’t know much about ships and because he carried an umbrella. 

“Russians who frequently carry umbrellas are more likely to have an intelligence function,” someone noted.

Keep that in mind. You never know when it’ll prove useful.

 

In other political news

A while ago, Jeremy Hunt, currently the chancellor of the exchequer–a.k.a. the guy who’s in charge of the government’s money and on a good day is expected to make taxing, spending, and borrowing match, or at least not set each other on fire–set up a charity (if you’re American, that’s a nonprofit) called Patient Safety Watch to research preventable harm in healthcare. In the year that ended in January 2022, it spent two-thirds of its income–that’s something more than £110,000–paying its only employee, who’s it’s chief executive and who just happens to be Hunt’s former advisor, Adam Smith. 

Smith lost his job as Hunt’s advisor in a 2012 lobbying scandal but is now Hunt’s parliamentary aide because we have the attention span of a lettuce.

Hunt set up the charity in 2019 and part-funds it himself. So far, it’s produced zero papers. 

Sorry–”appears to have produced” zero papers.

And in the nonpolitical news

Since this is a roundup of the British news, let’s go to some art news from Germany, which for the sake of clarity I should remind you is not in Britain, it’s in, um, Germany. 

A painting by Piet Mondrian that’s been hanging in a museum in Dusseldorf since 1980 turns out to be upside down

Why couldn’t anybody tell? Mondrian was an abstract artist–so abstract that he painted nothing but grids–and he never got around to signing this one, so they didn’t have much to go on, but a photograph of his studio shows it hanging the other way around, so presumably that’s what Mondrian had in mind. 

But you know what? In a new show of his work, they’re going to hang it the way it’s been anyway.    

*

A study reports that unborn babies grimace when their mothers swallow capsules packed with powdered kale 20 minutes before an ultrasound. They don’t  grimace when the mothers swallow capsules filled with powdered carrots. 

Use that information in whatever way suits you. 

*

A study estimates that 20 quadrillion ants live on earth. 

How many ants in a single quadrillion? Lots. Enough that there are 2.5 million ants to every human now living. 

Use that in whatever way suits you as well.

Who hasn’t resigned yet? It’s politics in Britain

British politics have been so much fun this week that people were rushing home to watch the news because they need a good laugh. Our newly minted prime minister, Liz Truss, is now our ex-prime minister, although she’ll stay in office until her party finds some unfortunate soul to replace her. She should set a record for the shortest-serving prime minister in the country’s history.

She came into office not much more than a month ago. Then the queen died and for ten days history was canceled, so Truss didn’t have much chance to screw up, or not publicly anyway. What she did behind closed doors was between her and Larry the Cat, chief mouser to multiple prime ministers. So she’s done a lot of damage–not all of it to herself, unfortunately–in a remarkably short time. 

Largely irrelevant photo: This isn’t Larry the Cat, just some cat I saw sitting in a window, looking like it would prefer to be someplace else.

So much for the intro. What’s happening?

We’ll start at something vaguely like the beginning. When she became prime minister, Truss appointed Kwasi Kwarteng chancellor and the two of them put together a mini-budget that in hindsight looks like a suicide pact, although I’m sure they saw themselves as bold, courageous, and several other synonyms. 

The mini-budget involved multiple tax cuts that were heavily weighted toward the people with the most money because, you know, they have so much money. And they dress well and they donate so much to political parties. Who can resist them? Besides, they’d invest that money and the economy would grow and all the cash would trickle down to people with less money, who’d be ever so grateful, and the pie would grow.

Yes, Truss did say the pie would grow. Cartoonists had a glorious few days with that before life got so crazy that growing pies started to look sensible.

In addition to the problems inherent in the trickle-down theory–primarily that it doesn’t seem to work–a more immediate problem was that they hadn’t bothered to say where the money was going to come from to fund the tax cuts, and you have to at least pretend you’ve got that piece before you show the world your completed jigsaw puzzle. 

The pound promptly tanked, which raised the cost of government borrowing, and there’d clearly be a lot since they hadn’t figured out how they were going to cover those cuts. It also raised mortgage rates, because some 20% of mortgages in the country are trackers, which go up when the interest rates rise, and interest rates were imitating that imaginary pie.

Truss’s party began to turn on her publicly–first one Member of Parliament, then several, then a few more. It was an iceberg situation. You judge the size of the hidden opposition by the part that’s visible.

So what does a courageous etc. prime minister do when her party doesn’t like her bold etc. plan? She fires her chancellor, that’s what she does, and exempts herself from the suicide pact, and appoints a new chancellor–in this case Jeremy Hunt, leaving Kwarteng holding the record for the chancellor who spent the second shortest length of time in office. But since the absolutely shortest-serving chancellor left his position by dying, that still gives Kwarteng a sort of first place.

 

Confession

I’m condensing the events here. And I’m not necessarily sticking to the sequence. It was all happening too fast to untangle, so in deference to the speed of events we’ll shift to the present tense, even thought it’s all in the past now. 

Don’t think about that too much. No matter which way you turn it, it won’t make much sense. Don’t give me any grief about it. I’ve rewritten this damned thing too many times already.

 

The press conference

If you want to look prime ministerial, you have to hold a press conference, so that’s what Truss does. Surely that’ll calm the markets, the politicians, and that segment of the populace that’s still searching the fields where pies grow. She’s smart enough to know she’s not popular, so she picks through the assembled journalists like someone who’ll only eat the blue M&Ms. Blue is her party’s color, after all, and she needs Tory-friendly questions. She’s surrounded by enemies. The woods are dark and dangerous. It’s hard to tell Grandma from the wolf.

None of the journalists, it turns out, are her grandmother. One asks, “Can you explain . . . why you should remain as prime minister, given that you’ve dumped a key tax cut that led you to be elected and got rid of your chancellor?”

Another asks how come, given that she and the chancellor designed the budget together, “you get to stay?”

A third asks what credibility she has.

A fourth asks why not even Grandma hasn’t seen fit to show her support.

To each question, she blithers something about being determined to “see through what I’ve promised.” 

After eight painful minutes, she ends the press conference and staggers out of the room.

 

Larry the Cat

Larry the Cat is reported to have chased a fox away from 10 Downing Street, although I have it on good authority that Larry was only asking if it would like to be the next prime minister, at which point it fled. 

 

Facing the Commons

Since nothing gladdens the heart of a British politician more than making another politician (preferably one from another party) suffer in public, the Labour Party puts forward a question that, under normal circumstances, would bring a prime minister toddling into the House of Commons to answer it personally. 

These aren’t normal times, though, and Truss doesn’t appear, so Penny Mordaunt–a fellow Conservative and at one point a rival for Truss’s current, unenviable position–steps in to answer for her, explaining that the prime minister is not hiding under her desk. 

A new rumor circulates: Liz Truss is hiding under her desk.

Jeremy Hunt–new chancellor, remember–announces that he’s reversing almost all Truss’s tax measures. The pound inches upward. The markets nod dozily.

He reassures us that Truss is still in charge. 

A new rumor circulates. Yes, you guessed it.

 

Facing the king

Truss is announced to the king for her weekly audience and he says, “Back again?” and then, “Dear, oh dear.”

 

Facing her own party

In the week before Truss resigned, all you had to do was ask Lord Google, “How long will Li . . .” and he’d finish the sentence with “. . . z Truss be prime minister?” Although, in fairness, he might have suggested something different to you. He knows what you’ve been thinking. He knows when you’re awake. He knew when Truss is in trouble, and so does everyone else.

Okay, that was past tense. Truss resigned twenty minutes ago and I’m rewriting this. Again.  

There were several ways Truss could be dumped, but they boil down to these: 1, Her own party could force her out, or 2, the House of Commons could force her out, triggering a general election.

Or, of course, she could resign and claim it was her own idea.

Her own party was and is somewhere between reluctant and shit-scared to trigger an election right now. Polls suggest that they’re slightly less popular than Covid. One shows ten ministers losing their hind ends, along with the parliamentary seats they sit them on, if an election were to be held now. They include Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Hunt, and Therese Coffey, the health minister who recently told the world she’d given leftover antibiotics to a friend, enraging the medical establishment, which reminded us all that it’s not only illegal but dangerous. And unbecoming a health secretary, who might ought to maybe at least pretend she knows something about medicine, or at least knows enough to consult people who do.

To make up for it, she ups the ante and suggests that maybe pharmacists should start prescribing antibiotics, because who needs a diagnosis anyway? You just take some little pills and you get better.

But we were talking about polls. Sorry. It’s just so nice to hear that Coffey has an opinion on something other than the series comma. 

That same poll also projects that Boris Johnson would lose his seat and ass and the Conservatives would face a wipeout.

So no, the Conservatives aren’t in the mood for an election right now, and they still have a huge majority, so they’re in a position to block any move in the Commons. This means the first possibility was the one to pay attention to: Her own party forces her out. To do that, they have follow rules the party itself sets, which say the prime minister’s position can’t be challenged until she’s been in office for a year. Unless, of course, the party decides to change its rules, which it can do as soon as enough of the right people are in the mood. 

The last two prime ministers were forced out that way, remember. All it took was a threat to change the rules, although in Boris Johnson’s case most of his cabinet had to resign before he noticed. The point is, though, that they’re getting good at forcing prime ministers out, if not at governing. But rumor has it that they can’t coalesce around an alternative. Or any half dozen likely sounding alternatives. They seem to have poured all the fizz off the top of their beer and now they’re left with–

That metaphor’s not going to work, is it? Never mind They don’t seem to have convinced themselves that any living Conservative politician has what it takes. It’s one of the places where I find common ground with them. The other? That the law of gravity should remain in force.

Some are even talking about bringing Boris Johnson back. 

Nevertheless, speculation about how long Truss will last was so widespread that one paper had a live-streaming lettuce-cam, asking which will last longer, the prime minister or a head of lettuce?

The lettuce had a ten-day shelf life. It won.

Jack Peat, who writes at the London Economic, raised a possibility I hadn’t thought of: A new election doesn’t have to depend on a majority of parliament voting for it. A general strike could force one. We’re already in the midst of multiple strikes, and more are likely, regardless of who follows Truss.

“As we have seen this summer, workers are more organised than they have been in many years, and the worst is still to come as the cost of living crisis really shows its teeth. Such a large movement could force Truss’s hand, and in doing so, trigger the inevitable capitulation of the Tory Party. “

Truss’s resignation (now forty minutes old) makes that unnecessary but who knows what comes next? The strategy might still be useful.

 

Meanwhile, addressing the nation from under her desk . . . 

. . . Truss announced that she would lead her party into the next election. Several people near where I live said, “Whatever she’s on, I’d like some.”

Larry the Cat reopened negotiations with the fox, whose name has still not yet been made public.

 

Also meanwhile, at a committee of the House of Lords

Ai-Da, an ultra-realistic robot who paints, testified about I have no idea what. Someone asked how she produces art and she said, “I produce my paintings by cameras in my eyes, my AI algorithms and the AI robotic arm to paint on canvas, which result in visually appealing images from my poetry using neutral networks.”

Neutral is not my typo. The questions were submitted in advance and Ai-Da was giving a prefabricated answer. So someone of the human persuasion thought that particular set of words answered the question. 

And maybe it does. I’ve seen equally enlightening statements written by flesh-and-blood artists, and understood them just as well. 

In response to the next question, Ai-Da shut down and had to be rebooted, giving Truss a workable strategy for her next press conference–which didn’t happen.

 

. . . while in what passes for the real world

. . . the new chancellor made noises about a return to austerity. You know what that’s like: They start talking about efficiency and trimming fat, but mysteriously leave fat on the programs they like and take the bones and the meat from ones they don’t, leaving them not only less efficient but in pieces. 

Looking around the country, you might not be able to tell that we left austerity behind, but never mind. If we did, apparently we’re going back. Last I heard, the government needs to come up with £70 billion, and reversing the Truss/Kwarteng tax cuts will only cover half of that. 

Inflation was last clocked breaking the 10% speed limit, but necessities are up more than that. Electricity’s gone up 52%, gas 102.2%, cheese, 23.1%, prefab meals, 19%; milk (that’s low fat), 42%, and so on. People are looking for ways to use less and less fuel when they cook–it’s taking that much of a bite out of the budget.

 

It couldn’t get any worse, right?

Of course it could. Truss’s acting director of communications and key advisor was suspended for saying–or more likely, for being quoted as having said–that Conservative MP Sajid Javid was “shit”–or as one reporter put it, “excremental.” 

Folks, this is why governments need directors of communications. They know what to say in every situation.

The home secretary launched an attack on the Guardian-reading, tofu-eating wokerati. Tofu immediately started trending on Twitter.

Then she resigned, having held the position for 43 days and setting another record. Why? Well, she sent a secret document from her personal email account (apparently to someone who wasn’t authorized to see it anyway) and since she was on her way out she used her resignation letter to savage the government for not taking responsibility for its mistakes. 

But wait. She hadn’t quit, she was fired. Or she wasn’t fired. Or else she was and she and Truss had a 90-minute shouting match. At this point, no one much cares about the details, or at least the tofu-eating wokerati and I don’t and let’s face it, who else matters? She’s gone. Her replacement praised the new chancellor but managed not to mention the prime minister. 

Journalists began asking who was in charge. From under her desk, Truss sent a note saying, “I am.”

A vote in the House of Commons degenerated into chaos, with accusations of screaming, shouting, bullying, and more to the point pushing and shoving so Conservative MPs would vote the way their party wanted them to. This was possible because MPs vote by walking into one room or another–or in this case, by getting pushed into one of them. Apparently if your body goes through the door, it doesn’t matter how it got there, you voted.

The chief whip resigned–and apparently her deputy did as well. 

What’s a chief whip? The person who keeps MPs in line, threatening them with mayhem if they look like they might vote the wrong way. 

What does it mean when a chief whip resigns? It’s the political equivalent of your underwear spontaneously falling off as you stand at the bus stop on your way to work. Only your underwear’s unlikely to yell, as the deputy is supposed to have at the point where he and his underwear left the voting lobby, “I am fucking furious and I don’t give a fuck anymore.” Except the the site where I found that quotes him as saying “f***ing,” which is hard to pronounce, never mind yell.

Then they both unresigned. Or else one of them did. Or neither. Or possibly they never resigned in the first place.

We’re all a bit dizzy and need to sit quietly for a while.

A veteran TV journalist called the Northern Ireland minister–off camera–a cunt and apologized to the world at large, saying it was below the standard he sets for himself. I’m disappointed only that he apologized. Not that I know enough about the Northern Ireland minister, just that–oh, hell, I like a bit of swearing now and then.

 

Who’s next?

A friend suggested yesterday that we’ve had so many prime ministers lately that we need a collective noun for them. A disappointment of prime ministers? A desperation of prime ministers? Please, help me out here. It’s important and we need the world’s best brains working on it.

I’m writing this on Thursday, October 20. It’s now an hour since Truss resigned. She’ll stay under her desk, pretending to govern, until her party picks a replacement, which is expected to take a week–much less time than it took to choose Truss, but after the MPs narrow down the candidates the final two will be voted on by Conservative Party members, those wise and sober citizens who thought Truss was a good idea. The rest of us will sit on the sidelines.  

[Yet another update: Conservative MPs will narrow the field of candidates down and if two are left standing and unmaimed the choice will go to the members. If only one is still functional, that’s it, the decision will have been made and the members won’t have to bother their little heads.]

As for me, I’ve worn out several of the English language’s verb tenses and refuse to do any more rewriting. I’m posting it early–Thursday evening instead of Friday morning–before anything else changes. For whatever happens next, allow me to refer you to a real newspaper. Even if you’re not a fan, they’ve been a lot of fun lately.

A final word, though: Larry the Cat’s negotiations with the fox are ongoing. The snag, apparently, is that the fox won’t accept the position without a mandate from the voters and the Conservatives are understandably not interested in bringing the voters into the picture right now.

The latest thing in conspiracy theories: It’s the news from Britain

The latest thing in conspiracy theories: It’s the news from Britain

Britain has a special relationship with the US, although Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey indicates that only Britain is knows about it. But never mind that. It’s so important that Britain sometimes gives it capital letters: the Special Relationship.

In fairness, Britain hands out a lot of capital letters, so Americans, don’t let that go to your head.

But special relationship or no special relationship, Britain doesn’t like taking second place, even in the production of conspiracy theories, so we’ve come up with a nice one that’s all our own: The security guards who attended King Charles–that’s the monarch formerly known as Prince–at his mother’s funeral used fake hands so they could keep their real ones on the weapons hidden under their coats. 

Well, of course they did. I’ve seen photos circulating on TikTok, and they show the security guys keeping a tight grip on their hands, as if they were afraid they’d drop off. 

Yes, people do stay up nights to work this stuff out.

The paper I found this in seems to have found it credible enough that they trotted out a security expert to explain why that wouldn’t happen in the UK, although it might, of course, in the US.

Isn’t it interesting what people think of the US? We’re a nation where people could, imaginably, hide an extra pair of arms under their coats.

Irrelevant photo: A pedestrian crossing in Camden, London.

But that’s not what the expert addressed. In the US, he explained–and this comes in the form of an indirect quote from the Metro–“close protection officers are more ‘trigger happy’ . . . but the ‘risk is too high’ in the UK.”

In other words, you might be able to run around shooting people at royal funerals in the US (assuming, of course, that you can find a royal funeral), but you can’t do that in Britain. 

No one seems to have asked how long it would take security guys in any country to break their real arms loose if they did need to get trigger happy, but before I’m going to get on board for this one I need an answer. 

But let’s move on

Do you ever wonder why so many conspiracy theories are on the loose lately? It’s a desperate effort to make sense of a  world that’s falling apart. 

That’s not meant as a joke.

So what’s the British government doing to hold it all together? Well, we have a brand new government, cobbled together by the Conservative Party, which still has a hefty majority in Parliament. Already, though, the shine’s coming off it. It–this is the government we’re talking about in case you’ve lost track–announced a new mini-budget that, in the face of a population increasingly desperate about inflation, promised a tax cut for the richest eighteenth of a percent of the population. It would fund that by borrowing money that it would pay back when pigs fly in formation past the Houses of Parliament waving lion-and-unicorn banners and singing “The Marseillaise.”

Why “The Marseillaise”? Irony, that’s why. Their long and less than happy relationship with humans has led pigs to develop a sharp sense of irony.

The pound promptly tanked. That’s the vote that really matters, so the political world came to a rolling boil. MPs in the government’s own party publicly attacked the idea, attacked the prime minister, attacked the chancellor, and attacked Larry the Cat, who in fairness isn’t even in the cabinet. 

Cabinet ministers accused MPs of staging a coup. 

Larry the Cat accused the government of being stingy with the cat treats.

The prime minister said she wouldn’t back down. 

The prime minister repeated that she wouldn’t back down.

The prime minister backed down, but only on the most controversial tax cut, not on other problematic parts of the budget, which I’ll skip over. Come on, do I look like a newspaper? When the details overwhelm the humor, I have to move on.

The prime minister won’t rule out reinstating the tax cut. 

Larry the Cat upchucked a lightly used mouse head on the steps of Number 10.

In the meantime, the government that won’t commit to increasing benefits (Americans can translate that welfare and similar programs) in line with inflation. People–and not just the poorest ones–are seriously worried about how to heat their homes, food banks are deluged, and the National Health Service is coming apart at the seams. 

And we’re hearing a lot of talk about power cuts this winter. 

*

But compassion isn’t completely missing. I recently stumbled over an expensively printed flier with advice on reducing fuel poverty. Some sponsors are in small enough print that I’m not sure if it’s only from the Cornwall Council or if it’s national as well, but hey, if I had anything to do with it I’d want my name in small print as well.

What does it advise us to do?

  • Keep warm
  • Have regular hot meals and drinks
  • Keep moving 
  • Look after yourself
  • Take care of your neighbors

Thanks, guys. I don’t know what we’d do without you.

To be fair, they also give us a handful of phone numbers to try, but I wouldn’t hold my breath about any of them solving people’s problems.

So what does the Department for Fiddling While Rome Burns say?

The government’s addressing the important stuff, though. Therese Coffey–the new health secretary who sports an accent in her first name but I can’t be bothered searching the depths of Word to find it–has taken a tough stand on the Oxford Comma. 

The what?

I’m not exactly British, so I’m not the best person to ask, but back in that big country on the other side of the Atlantic, I learned to call it a series comma. By either name, it’s the comma you either do or don’t use before the final item in a list. You know, when you write to the health secretary and say either, “I find your advice odd, patronizing, and trivial,” or “I find your advice odd, patronizing [no comma, you’ll notice] and trivial.” 

C’mon, this stuff is important.

I won’t try to explain why that’s called the Oxford comma in Britain, mostly since  I don’t understand it either, but Coffey’s agin it. (She wouldn’t approve of agin either, which is why it made its way in here.) She’d no more than located her new office and hung up her coat than she told civil servants to “be positive” in their communications with her, to avoid double negatives, and to not use the Oxford comma. 

After that hit the headlines, her departmental flak-catchers jumped in and acknowledged that the memo was real but said Coffey hadn’t written it. 

“There may have been a bit of over-eagerness” in the content, he, she, they [Oxford comma ahead], or it said.

Wouldn’t it be nice if they were half as eager to shorten the lists of people waiting for medical treatment, fill the National Health Service’s job vacancies, or fix hospital roofs? But those things take money. Oxford commas? They come cheap.

Yeah, but why’d the Conservative’s get a reputation as the Nasty Party?

Gee, I don’t know. I wasn’t here when it happened, but it’s not helped by people like Daniel Grainger, chair of the Young Conservative Network, who arrived in Birmingham for the party convention and tweeted that it was “a dump.” 

He’s stepped down pending an investigation, although that may be over a different tweet–one that, sadly, hasn’t hit the headlines.

How’d the party conference go?

Well, a recent study reports that dogs can sniff out whether people are stressed. I haven’t read that the conference center was surrounded by stress-trained canines, but then I haven’t read that it wasn’t. And for all I know, those hands really were fake. Can you prove they weren’t?

Can we go back to economics, please?

Sure. The Ig Nobel Economics Prize went to Alessandro Pluchino and his colleagues for a mathematical explanation of why success so often goes not to the most talented people but to the luckiest. 

Irrelevantly but irresistibly, the prize for medicine went to Marcin Jasiński and colleagues for showing that patients treated with cryotherapy–a form of chemotherapy that dries out the mouth, gums, and tongue–have fewer harmful side effects when ice cream replaces the ice chips they usually suck on.

They used Ben and Jerry’s, although I expect the improvement would carry over to other brands. 

What happens when you elect a pony as your mayor

Cockington, a village in Devon, has elected a shetland pony as its mayor. 

The pony’s name is Patrick, he’s four years old, he works as a therapy animal in hospitals and schools, and at some point after the pandemic started his person brought him to the local pub to help people who were struggling with–well, whatever the pandemic had them struggling with in the pub. 

As a logical outcome of all that, when the previous mayor–a human–died in 2019, 200 people signed a petition supporting Patrick’s candidacy on the grounds that he was “non judgemental and genuinely caring and supportive to all.”

His person–who doubled as his campaign manager–wrote the petition. 

Irrelevant photo: a sunflower–our neighbor’s.

Disappointingly (especially in view of my  misleading headline), the best the village could do was to make him the unofficial mayor, but he did have a very official-seeming ceremony and his own office. And all was well until someone complained about him being in the pub and the Torbay Council–that’s the local government–stuck its nose in and announced that the pub needed planning permission for Patrick’s pen and for animal grazing. 

That meant money, so the pub dismantled Patrick’s enclosure. (I think that was his office, but I can’t swear to it.)

Why did someone complain? One local suspects jealousy. “It’s someone who also thinks they are mayor of Cockington.”

On the other hand, the council hasn’t banned Patrick from visiting the pub. Which is good because he ‘s developed a taste for Guiness. 

 

Less upbeat political news

Liz Truss, one of the two remaining candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party and (ever so incidentally) the country, briefly proposed saving £11 billion by reducing the cost of the civil service. In headline-speak, that was going to be a War on Whitehall Waste, complete with capital letters.

Most of the savings were going to come through cutting civil servants’ pay and vacation time and it would save £8.8 billion.

Why is that £8.8 billion instead of £11 billion? No idea. I’m allergic to numbers. But it doesn’t matter, because according to Alex Thomas, program director for the Institute for Government, the total bill for the civil service comes to around £9 billion. 

What the proposal meant, he explained in a tweet, was not just cutting the pay of civil servants, who politicians love to attack, but also the pay of nurses, doctors, and all the important but less picturesque people who keep the National Health Service running, plus (while we’re at it) teachers.

Truss backed away from the proposal as soon as the bricks started flying, but if the local council orders the pub to tear down her enclosure, I’m not sure how many people will protest.

 

News from the art world

I don’t know why I think this next story follows from that, but what the hell, it’s about money, so let’s put it here: A New Zealand artist is asking $10,000 NZ for an artwork that (if you have an eye for art) you’ll recognize as the pickle slice from a McDonald’s cheeseburger that’s been thrown onto an art gallery ceiling.

That’s the pickle, not the whole cheeseburger. I do think it’s important to get these details right.

The rest of us, barbarians that we are, will probably think it came from some low-rent, cheeseless quarter-pounder. But no, this pickle slice not only comes from a cheeseburger, it’s classy enough to be a “provocative gesture” designed to question what has value–or so the gallery says. And since art-speak has lots of value, it must be so. At least until the bugs get to it.

The work is called  “Pickle.” If you buy it–and I know  you’d love to–you’ll get instructions on how to recreate it in your own space. But you’ll have to buy your own burger and remove the pickle, so that’ll cost you $4.44 NZ on top of the $10,000.

Or you can just paste a pickle to your ceiling and save yourself $10,000 NZ. If you need a bit of rhetoric to justify saving money on art, I’m happy to work with you on that. For free. Art-speak isn’t my specialty but I’m pretty sure we could, in combination, come up with something and then add art-speak to our CVs.

 

Can we go back to politics now?

…or at least to the corner where politics and money meet and where so many politicians aspire to live? 

The Summit of the Americas brought together both of the above in the interest of promoting investment and development and profit. Who could possibly object?

Yes, I know you could, but the question was rhetorical so please put your hand down. 

Since the people who attended have no need of free goodies, they were given expensive goodie bags, demonstrating yet again that to those who need not shall free stuff be given. And it was in that spirit that the US Chamber of Commerce (purpose? “We . . . fight for business growth and America’s success”) promoted US business by handing out goodie bags with  sunglasses and insulated drinking bottles stamped with the words “Made in China.” 

 

From the International Relations Desk

Denmark and Canada have ended the Whiskey War

The what?

A fifty-year squabble over the uninhabited Arctic rock called Hans Island,which is less than a square mile–and for reasons I’ll never wrap my head around that’s not the same as a mile square. You’re welcome to explain that to me as long as you don’t suffer from the illusion that it’ll help. 

The battle began with a boundary dispute over the Nares Channel, which separates Canada and Greenland. That was settled in 1973 but the two countries are close enough to Hans Island that under international law both had a legitimate claim to it. 

And who wouldn’t want to claim a small, uninhabited, and apparently useless rock if international law says you can? 

What does all this have to do with Denmark, you ask? Greenland’s an autonomous territory of Denmark, which means Denmark had a dog in that fight–or as a friend insists on putting it, an animal in that barn.

The two sides eventually came to an agreement about the unimportant stuff but had to postpone the contentious issue of Hans Island. Then in 1984, Canada landed, planted its flag, and buried a bottle of Canadian whiskey. Denmark responded by replacing the maple leaf with its own flag and leaving a bottle of schnapps, along with a note saying, “Welcome to Danish Island.”

And so it went back and forth for 49 years, through multiple flags and lots of booze, until in 2018 the two countries agreed to split the island. 

Why are we only hearing about this now? Is it one of those things the Deep State doesn’t want you to know? 

Well, no. Both countries needed parliamentary approval before they could commit themselves on anything this momentous, so it’s taken time. When the news broke in June, it looked like both sides were ready to declare peace. 

I don’t know who’s been opening all those bottles, but I’m sure they’ll miss the war.

 

And related to none of that…

The Encyclopedia Britannica’s One Good Fact email informs me that the first ever webcam was set up to monitor a pot of coffee “so scientists wouldn’t have to go check if it was empty.”

News of Britain’s Royal Mail & some advice about social media 

A package with no return address that was addressed to an empty house sat around a London post office for a month, and since it was marked “Edibles,” someone opened it and found brownies. And you pretty well know what happened next: People ate them. 

Okay, full disclosure: It wasn’t just marked, “Edibles,” it was marked, “Edibles by Pablo Chocobar,” and in hindsight maybe someone should’ve guessed what that meant. Or maybe they did. Either way, everyone involved got high, especially the guy who ate four. 

Someone made a video of what happened next, and it went viral, which must’ve been satisfying. Then the people involved in the incident were suspended–reportedly–which must’ve been less satisfying. 

The Royal Mail said it would be reminding everyone of how to handle mail with no address for delivery or return. It promised to scold everyone involved thoroughly, just as soon as they stopped giggling.

Would you forgive me if I offer a bit of advice here? I know this isn’t an advice blog. I won’t tell you how to clean your house, your skin, your gut, or your mind. But we’ve stumbled into a subject I know something about, so here you go, kiddies, learn from me: When you just have to break the law or commit a fireable offense at work, don’t video it. Don’t take selfies. And if someone else videos it, stay out of the picture. Don’t grin woozily into the lens and say, “I ate four.” I know all of that is what people do these days, but it’s still incriminating evidence. 

Sheesh, the younger generation. You have to tell them everything.

Irrelevant photo: One of the first wild primroses of the year.

*

On a more sober note,the Royal Mail is trying, maybe a little desperately, to be cutting edge and exciting (or at least that’s my interpretation), so it’s adding barcodes to its stamps. That’ll let people scan them and watch videos, messages, and information online.

How thrilling is that?

What kind of videos and information? Sadly, not videos of stoned postal workers wandering around London trying to remember what to do with all this paper stuff they’re lugging around. Instead, they’re offering exciting information about postal services, and when all the pieces of the new program are in place the sender will be able to choose a video for the recipient to watch, or even record a greeting. So far, though, only one video’s available. It features Shaun the Sheep. 

Will anyone care when it’s quicker, easier, and often free to send a video or a recorded message without the stamp? I’m doubtful. 

 

The queen’s jubbly

Some as-yet-unidentified business decided to cash in on Queen Elizabeth’s jubilee by ordering 10,800 cups, mugs, and plates with a hideous picture of the queen and a bit of jubilee wording. 

So far, so boring. But when they were delivered, the wording was, “To commemorate the Platinum Jubbly of Queen Elizabeth II.”

Proofreaders of the world, unite. 

All the merchandise ended up on a clearance website, and if you’d been fast enough you could’ve bought the whole mess for £32,400, but they’ve probably sold by now. Why? Because the word jubbly was made popular by a sitcom character whose catchphrase was “lovely jubbly.” That and the sheer absurdity of the stuff are probably enough to make it saleable.

Now let’s backtrack: The queen’s what

Jubilee, and to explain it I’ll lift a quote from the royal website, which takes the whole thing seriously and is maintained (I assure you, based on no insider knowledge whatsoever) by someone who’s roughly as royal as I am: “On 6th February this year Her Majesty The Queen will become the first British Monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years of service to the people of the United Kingdom, the Realms and the Commonwealth.”

You’ll notice that they not only award the queen a capital Q, they also capitalize the T in the, since it’s close enough to the Q of Queen to pick up a bit of royal fairy dust. According to the convoluted rules of English-language capitalization, the T should be lowercase. 

Of course, they also capitalize just about every other noun in the sentence. Because, see, they’re really, really excited about this. And it’s all so very important. 

So important that the country’s getting an extra four-day weekend and a lot of encouragement to hold celebrations. The country’s also getting a royal jubilee pudding competition. (Sorry, the deadline’s past in case you were thinking about sending in a recipe.)

What’s a pudding? Um, yeah. Basically, a dessert, but the word’s hazy enough, even in British English, that the royal website needs two paragraphs to define it and ends up saying that, other than being sweet, it’s open to interpretation.

Hawley’s Small and Unscientific Survey reports that an awful lot of people are taking all this royal hoopla seriously.

 

Geography, soup, and general incompetence news from all over

Can we shift to politics for a minute? Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, who’s supposed to be in charge of, you know, dealing with the rest of the world, wherever it may be, publicly mixed up the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. The exact quote is, “We are supplying and offering extra support into our Baltic allies across the Black Sea.” 

That gave a Russian official the opportunity to point out that the Baltic nations are called the Baltic nations because they’re on the Baltic Sea. Still, it’s an understandable mistake. The Baltic and Black seas are 700 miles apart, but they’re both full of water, start with a B, and are somehow or other associated with a highly fraught region, or possibly two, so what the hell. 

But setting aside all that annoying geography stuff, it’s reassuring to know that we’re both supplying and offering support. And that it’s going into our allies, not just bouncing off their outer shells.

You can see how helpful our support’s turning out to be.

*

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Georgia’s Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene denounced Democratic speaker of the house Nancy Pelosi’s  “gazpacho police” for “spying on members of Congress, spying on the legislative work that we do, spying on our staff and spying on American citizens.” 

If she’s issued a clarifying statement, I haven’t found it, but the going theory is that she was worrying about being spied on by something along the lines of Nazi Germany’s Gestapo, not by bowls of cold vegetable soup. Although these days, you can’t rule anything out.

*

If you think being spied on by cold vegetable soup is too silly for anyone to believe, consider the survey showing that one in every four Americans thinks the sun orbits the earth. Less surprisingly, almost half of them–48%–don’t believe humans evolved from other animals.

The survey was conducted by the National Science Foundation and included more than 2,200 participants. But before anyone starts drawing wide-ranging conclusions about the U.S., one in three residents of the European Union got the earth/sun question wrong. 

The small print: In most cases, one in three is more than one in four, even though it involves smaller numbers.

You’re welcome.

*

In cheerier news, Northern Powergrid sent compensation checks to tens of thousands of customers who’d been left without power after a storm last November. So far, so ho hum, but 74 of them got checks for trillions of pounds. 

Unfortunately, Northern Powergrid blocked payment before the checks could be cashed. 

How’d they find out? Someone tweeted a photo of his check and asked if the company was sure it could afford it. The tweet went–you guessed it–viral, and he got a lot of attention, but you could argue that he tweeted himself out one or two trillion pounds.

The company’s mumbling about a clerical error and an electricity meter reference number being dropped into the slot where the refund amount belonged. 

It’s the kind of mistake that could happen to anyone.

 

The freedom of speech report

Last fall a Conservative member of parliament, Jonathan Gullis, suggested that anyone who uses the phrase white privilege should be reported to the Home Office’s anti-extremism program. He also said teachers who criticize the Conservative Party to their students should be fired.

“We need to start sacking people who are pushing their political ideology,” he said.

He, of course, is not pushing a political ideology. He’s just saying what everybody knows is right.

 

And finally, a report from Britain’s grocery store aisles

The pandemic increased the number of people ordering groceries online, and although it’s nice not to have to wander the aisles yourself (or some people think it is anyway), it does leave customers at the mercy of computer algorithms. 

What are people getting in place of the things they ordered? These examples come from the oddly named British consumer group Which? (The question mark is theirs, not mine. I deny all responsibility. Have you ever wondered how to make a possessive out of a name that carries its own punctuation?)

Two in five people who answered Which?’s survey had gotten odd replacements, including:

  • Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream instead of fish filets
  • Eggs from an actual chicken instead of a candy called Creme Eggs
  • Duck paste instead of duct tape
  • Scouring sponges instead of a victoria sponge cake
  • Sausage rolls instead of toilet paper (that’s not quite as insane as it sounds: they’re called toilet rolls; still, you don’t want to think about that one too much)

And more mysteriously

  • Cooking oil instead of milk
  • Tampons instead of shaving cream
  • Bleach instead of orange squash–a kind of dilute-it-yourself soft drink
  • And dog food instead of bread sticks

The people who pick the groceries off the shelves can override computer substitutions, but they’re being chased down the aisles by time targets and can’t always spare the minute it would take to dig into what’s happening, so they grab what they’re told and move on. 

Customers do have the right to reject substitutions, but if they’re like me they’ll sometimes agree to them before they’ve taken in the full insanity involved.