‘Lone Wolf’ killers and terrorism

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I’ve blogged about this before (here) but I’m a bit concerned by the determination of many within political and media circles to label ‘Lone Wolf’ killers, like Thomas Mair, as ‘terrorists’.

Here’s the thing: we do not know why Mair murdered Jo Cox.  We know that as he was committing his repellent crime, he shouted something like ‘Britain first!’ and we know that he had a collection of books about Nazi Germany.  We know that he had accumulated magazines produced by American white supremacist groups and that he apparently had a collection of Nazi regalia; and he seems to have been involved some years ago with a pro-Apartheid group in the UK.

But we also know that Thomas Mair has not communicated in any meaningful way with the police since he was arrested and, as far as I’m aware, nobody has yet come forward who has any special knowledge of his political views beyond what has been inferred from his reading habits.  His half-brother has been quoted saying that:  ‘He has never expressed any views about Britain, or shown any racist tendencies…  I’m mixed race and I’m his half-brother, we got on well’.  According to the Daily Mail:  “Rosemary Surman, 61, who is a friend of Mair’s mother, even remembered him saying he said there were good reasons for both staying and leaving the EU.”

In fact, the books on his bookshelf are broadly either mainstream histories or illustrated books aimed largely at collectors of Third Reich artefacts.  I don’t recognise any of them as being pro-Nazi or white supremacist*.  In fact, I wrote one of the books he had: ‘Patriot Traitors’ is a comparative biography of Sir Roger Casement and John Amery, men sentenced to death for High Treason in the First and Second World Wars respectively, which amongst other things discusses whether their sexual alienation from the then norms of British society may have led to their rejection of it.  Published by Penguin, it is hardly a pro-Nazi tract.

The neo-Nazi magazines are doubtless pretty unpleasant but they are not evidence that he was affiliated to any kind of ‘movement’ even if he agreed with their ideology.  In the absence of any context from Mair,  they strongly suggest he has white supremacist sympathies but we really don’t know for sure.  As it happens, I have quite a substantial collection of Fascist, Nazi and, indeed, Marxist literature in my library but I’m a fairly squishy liberal Tory.

We also know, and I think this is quite important, that Mair has had mental health issues.  A psychiatrist examined him whilst he was in detention before trial and effectively pronounced him ‘fit to plead’ – that is, that he understood the difference between right and wrong – but we don’t really know how much Mair engaged with the process.  He is alleged to have had Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and, by his own account to a local newspaper before the murder, to have been treated for unspecified mental health problems at a clinic in Yorkshire.  All the descriptions of him that have emerged so far are of a deeply solitary man who did not form personal relationships easily.

So can we really say – as many are insisting – that Mair is a ‘neo-Nazi terrorist’ rather than an obsessive, cranky and unstable loner who developed a tragically murderous obsession with Jo Cox?  I’m really not sure that we can.

If we take a working definition of terrorism as ‘the committing of acts of violence with the aim of achieving a political goal’, it seems a stretch to make Mair’s murder of Jo Cox into an act of terrorism based on the actual evidence there is, rather than our suppositions.  Obviously she was a political figure who stood for many of the things that Mair probably disliked but did he actually think he would be achieving some kind of goal by killing her?  We don’t know.

According to the police,  there is some evidence, from his web-searching before the murder, that he was also contemplating killing his mother – on the grounds of ‘miscegenation’ (marrying outside her race) – and may have been intending to do so after he had killed Jo Cox.  This strikes me – and I accept that this is pure speculation – as more like the pattern of behaviour of a wannabe ‘spree killer’ like Michael Ryan or Adam Lanza, albeit one who was only able to arm himself with a clunky sawn-off .22 rifle and a reproduction fighting dagger.  It is by no means unknown for psychopathic murderers to want to shoehorn their crimes into a political narrative as a way of justifying themselves.  Anders Breivik certainly did.  Maybe Mair was  contemplating attacking other victims?  We simply don’t know.

So in the absence of evidence, I do not believe that we should try to impose our own political narrative on Mair’s crime, based simply on his reading matter.

 

*There is a copy of David Irving’s book about the Nuremberg Trials on his shelf.  While Irving is broadly sympathetic to Hitler, his books do not generally praise – or particularly dwell on – Nazi ideology.

President Trump, WTF!

 

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It’s Happened!

Well, were I a US Citizen, I wouldn’t have voted for Donald Trump but, having said that, I somewhat doubt whether any of the apocalyptic predictions being made in the wake of his victory will come to pass.  He is quite clearly an egotist of gigantic proportions (although which politician isn’t?) but that may not be a bad thing.  After all, he is far too arrogant to subscribe to any particular political ideology: I suspect the hard (and ‘Alt-‘) right will wind up just as disappointed in him as the left.  So now that the campaign is over, it’s worth cutting away at the hyperbole and taking a more realistic look at a few issues.

Trump as a person and what that means.

Yes, he’s arrogant.  His attitude towards women and minorities sucks.  He is rude, threatening and unpleasant towards rivals, competitors and critics.  But we all meet people like him every day. At the risk of being accused of ‘whataboutery’, the fact is that he has character traits shared by rich, powerful men everywhere and plenty of others too.  Let’s be honest:  Bill Clinton and even the sainted JFK were both partial to a bit of ‘pussy grabbing’; Nixon and, I suspect, a huge majority of his predecessors were demonstrably racist.  Nevertheless, for many US Presidents, being in office brings out the best in them.  Lyndon Johnson was a mean, vengeful, nasty, racist machine-politician but it didn’t stop him launching the ‘Great Society’.  Taking a more recent European example, Silvio Berlusconi was and is a thoroughly reprehensible figure yet a not ineffective Prime Minister of Italy.  With Trump, we’ll have to wait and see.  Remember, the US Constitution has checks and balances built in by design.  Even a conservative Supreme Court is unlikely to row significantly back on protections for minorities and, in any case, there will be another Presidential election in four years and Congressional elections in two.  For all the hyperbolic bullshit about Trump’s ‘Fascism’, he remains accountable under the US Constitution and nothing he can realistically do will change that.

But personally, I doubt whether he’s really all that interested in diminishing women’s or minority rights, as the left would have us believe.  He’s made racist remarks which presumably reflect his attitudes and these aren’t pretty, but they aren’t uncommon either.  My hunch is that Trump will be far too preoccupied by the other concerns of his office to make any real effort to attack women’s or ethnic minority rights whatever hopes the hard right are pinning on him.

And let’s not forget:  Trump is not an ideologue but a businessman.  In reality he’s supported Democrats in the past, he has worked with and promoted women and ethnic minorities within his businesses and he doesn’t seem particularly uncomfortable with issues like gay marriage.  He has said things during the campaign to reinforce his support from the right without, so far as I can tell, making too many explicit promises about what, exactly, he will do.  We may see in the US what we saw after the Brexit vote in the UK: an upsurge of racist incidents from individuals and groups emboldened by the fantasy that their ideas have somehow been popularly endorsed; but will it make race relations worse in the US?  From the outside, things appear pretty bad now despite having had a black President in office for nearly eight years and that leads me to think that it’s a systemic issue which Trump is unlikely to be able to affect much, one way or the other.

So how bad is he really?  In his acceptance speech, he has just paid tribute to Hillary Clinton, a complete reversal of his ‘lock her up’ rhetoric of a few weeks ago.  The realities of his office, the law and the US Constitution will most likely cause him to row back quietly  from many of the extreme positions he has apparently adopted. I hope so anyway.

Defence and Foreign Policy

There is one thing that Trump is absolutely on the money about.  Most members of NATO have been free-riding on America’s coat-tails since the end of the Cold War and, for some, long before.  The UK, France, some of the newly joined former Eastern Bloc states and, possibly, Germany, are the only members who punch remotely near their weight.  I’ve recently returned from an operational tour in Afghanistan serving with, but not as part of, the NATO ‘Resolute Support’ mission.  The base where I was living was dripping with NATO personnel but, when it came down to it, it was hard to tell what a lot of them were actually doing beyond showing the flag.  For all the talk of an EU Army, the best we’re going to see for years to come is an ineffectual fudge dependent on US (and perhaps, to a much lesser extent, UK) logistics and strategic lift.  One reason why many European states can afford such generous, and apparently irrevocable, welfare provision is because their defence forces are chronically underfunded and little more than symbolic.  They can provide a militarised diversity monitoring team here and there, but the idea of a European state other than the UK or France actually deploying combat formations in the field is laughable.  We are living in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world and this needs to change.

Having said that, Trump has made a lot of undeniably stupid defence and foreign policy comments during the campaign.  Will he get serious?  I’m comforted by the fact that government is not a one man band and that Trump will need to bring some serious people on board but it remains to be seen who these will be.  With a moderately sensible team on side, maybe the loose-cannon Trump can be reined in?

And while were at it, it isn’t like Obama’s foreign policy has been a runaway success, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding.  Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Russia, China, Venezuela, the Philippines and North Korea have all given the finger in one way or another to US foreign policy imperatives since Obama has been in office so maybe a different approach is needed.

In any case, there are a number of realities that are unavoidable.

Building a Wall with Mexico. Last time I checked, the writ of the President of the United States of America was not valid in Mexico, so if Trump wants Mexico to agree to this (and pay for it – right), he’s going to have to negotiate an agreement.  That isn’t going to happen overnight, if ever, so don’t wait up.  Even if, by some miracle, Mexico agrees, don’t expect it to happen quickly: the logistics alone make that impossible.  Could he get it built in four years?  I doubt it.  Could he do it in eight? Maybe if he lasts that long in office.  Maybe.

Russia.  Some disturbing things have emerged in recent months about Trump’s links with Russia and the Putin government.  I have no special insight into the truth of these and it remains to be seen what evidence can be found but notwithstanding this, there is certainly an argument for re-setting the US-Russian relationship which was profoundly damaged by the acceptance of former Warsaw Pact states into NATO.  In my view, this was a good thing but it took place against the backdrop of what Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor, thought was a promise that it wouldn’t happen.  Russia’s interference in neighbouring countries, cyber warfare against the west, the Russian annexation of the Crimea and invasion of the Ukraine and Georgia is at least partly explicable in this context.  An increased military presence in eastern Europe is absolutely necessary at the moment but it needs to be followed by negotiations and an agreement to prevent matters from deteriorating further.  Maybe Trump can do this. He’s a businessman and at root, I suspect, a pragmatist: Obama couldn’t and I doubt if Hillary would have been able either; it isn’t just American voters who don’t trust her.

Afghanistan.  Afghanistan is a generations-spanning problem.  Afghan governments cannot survive without significant outside support and haven’t done so since the British got ensnared there in the 1830s.  Why not?  Because they can’t raise revenue in a country which has a distinct national identity but is, at the same time, comprised of a collection of mutually hostile ethnic, tribal and clan fiefdoms.  The British footed the bills for a hundred years or so; then a broader group of international actors; then the Soviets; then Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; and now, primarily, the US and its ‘western’ partners.  If Trump pulls the plug on US involvement in Afghanistan and support for the National Unity Government, it will not take long for the Taleban to re-establish themselves as de facto rulers of the southern half of the country whilst other factions strive for control in the rest.  It’s worth noting that these factions will include both Al Qa’eda, who have never been completely eliminated there, as well as Islamic State, in the form of ‘Islamic State in Khorasan Province'(ISKP), who have been steadily increasing their strength for several years.  This will not be good for anyone.  The Central Asian republics and China fear the rise of Islamism – as does Russia to the north – and even Pakistan, which harbours the Taleban leadership, but has its own problems with the Pakistani Taleban, its offshoot ISKP and AQ, not to mention Baluchi separatists in the west.  A disintegrated and ungoverned Afghanistan without an effective counter-terrorist presence – and none of the local actors would be inclined, or probably able, to provide one – gives rise to similar conditions that led to 9/11.  So what?  In the short to medium term, at least, the US is stuck there, no matter what President Trump might want.  In the much longer term it’s possible to envisage a settlement in which the Taleban return to participate in government in Afghanistan on the basis that they will keep a lid on AQ and ISKP but that will require the US to give up a number of liberal ‘red-lines’ – full-on women’s rights springs to mind – as well as ramping up the pressure – in co-operation with regional players – on Pakistan to to bring the Taleban to the table.  I don’t think this would be possible for Hillary Clinton but may be for a President unencumbered by liberal baggage.

Syria and Iraq.  Aside from the humanitarian imperative, which is stark, the Syrian civil war risks developing into a much larger regional conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam which would have unknowable impacts globally.  The Obama Presidency sloped its shoulders and allowed others, notably Iran and Russia, to make the running.  IS is the first priority and needs to be defeated, although that will take time if it is not to morph into a different but equally unpleasant threat.  Trump has an opportunity here to make a break with his predecessor and adopt a more forward looking policy and co-operative policy which might actually be a game changer: if he listens to the right people at least.

So What?

‘The people have spoken – the bastards!’.  Trump is going to be President and things are likely to change.  I don’t doubt that he isn’t a particularly nice man who has said and done bad things in the past but equally, I doubt he’s an idiot either.  It’s easy for western liberals to imagine that he’s going to impose some kind of authoritarian reign of terror but somewhat less easy to work out how he might do that for real.  If we are being honest with ourselves, the Obama Administration has failed to achieve almost everything it set out to do not least because a significant – and now decisive – proportion of the US population was not ready for the kind of progressivism that was on on offer.  Trump is a pretty clear break with the past and with a Republican House and Senate, may be able to de-stagnate the American political process and make the kind of changes that a lot of American voters evidently want.  Whining about his character doesn’t change the fact that the US is a democracy and has just elected him to do a job.  Strategic forecasting is a mug’s game and I’m not going to indulge in predicting how things will turn out, but believing ones own side’s propaganda is equally silly.  What’s Trump going to do?  We don’t know yet; we’ve heard the rhetoric from the heat of the campaign, now we will see the reality.

As I said above, I wouldn’t have voted for Trump, but nor am I going to lose any sleep now that he’s been elected.  Rather than wetting our pants about our imagined fears, let’s wait and see what he actually does.

Nature, Nurture and Oxbridge Entry.

cambridge

Blimey, two blog posts in a day!

I’ve been reading some of the coverage this morning of the Cambridge Union debate on the question: “This House Believes Oxbridge is a Finishing School for the Privileged” which featured, amongst others, the writer, journalist and former Tory MP Louise Mensch – a person I rather admire, as it happens.

Part of the debate apparently focused on the unlikely proposition that 40% of children intelligent enough to gain entry to Oxbridge should have parents rich enough to pay for them to have attended fee-paying schools. On the face of it that does seem pretty daft.  The Independent Schools Council website claims that 6.5% of children are educated in the independent sector so that figure of 40% of Oxbridge entrants coming from the private sector does suggest something odd is going on, not least because anyone with any experience of independent schools, as a pupil or teacher, will tell you that they certainly have their share of the dim-witted and doziest pupils.

So what is the advantage?

In my day job, I’m a member of a team that assesses and selects candidates for a large, well-established and – indeed – world-renowned professional educational establishment (I won’t bore you with the details).  This means that – week in, week out – for the past three-and-a-half years I’ve been scrutinising groups of young men and women as they undertake a range of tasks and tests over a four day selection board.  The basic educational standard for entry is pretty low: 180 UCAS points, which is equivalent to three grade ‘D’ A-levels; but the overwhelming majority are actually graduates (or on their way to earning a first degree) and a significant minority also have postgraduate degrees.

Along with essays, practical tests and so on, all the candidates complete a mental aptitude profile (MAP) – in effect, a refined IQ test.  The raw MAP is then weighted against their educational attainment (for example, a 2:1 or better degree provides a little uplift), performance in the written tests that we administer and observed performance in the practical tasks, to produce a score which we call ‘Intellectual Potential’ (IP).  This is their potential to cope with the intellectual demands of the professional training they’re applying for.

MAP and IP are scored by us on a scale from 0-9.  In the final selection process, those with an IP of 0, 1 and 2 cannot pass the process; those on a 3 can get through if they do particularly well in other aspects of testing; those on 4 and above will normally pass if they reach the required standard.  In effect, an IP 3 is regarded as ‘borderline’ ability to cope with training, 4 and 5 as ‘average’, 6 and above as ‘above average’ to ‘superior’.

The interesting thing is that most of the Oxbridge (and other top universities’) undergrads and graduates that I have seen have been more or less indistinguishable from the others in terms of their raw MAP.  We see the normal range coming through with most, as you would expect, in the 4-6 range.  There are some who score higher, but equally, some who are in the borderline and below category.

What distinguishes the candidates from Oxbridge (and, to be fair, most Russell Group universities) is their consistently high educational attainment.  It’s rare to see a Cambridge or Oxford graduate or undergraduate who hasn’t achieved pretty much all ‘A’ or ‘A*’ grades at both GCSE and A level examinations.  The slightly odd thing which I have noticed is that a significant number have achieved these excellent results with intellectual equipment which is, at best, average and sometimes below.

Which is where the privilege bit comes in.  What is clear to me is that there are a number of schools out there which can take a fairly ordinary child – in terms of intellect at least – and take him or her a very long way.  At a school like Eton, for example, the system for ‘Specialists’ (thats 6th formers to you and me) is actually very similar to a university tutorial system, and many of the teachers wouldn’t be at all out of place teaching at a university if they chose to.  Intellectual stimulation at this level can have a huge impact.

As well as the nurturing aspect of the way that some schools operate, there’s a degree of compulsion too.  Many top independent schools simply boot out children who don’t get sufficiently good GCSE grades and don’t let them enter the 6th form for A Levels.  It’s a harsh but effective way of keeping schools at the top end of the A Level league tables, if nothing else.

On it’s own though, this twin-pronged approach isn’t necessarily enough: it only works if the child goes along with the process.  And that’s quite a big ‘if’, in my view, because we also occasionally see super-bright (so MAP 8 and 9) candidates who have been at supposedly good schools who haven’t done at all well educationally, just scraping the qualifications necessary to get them through our door: they certainly hadn’t been bothering any Oxbridge admissions tutors.

On the other hand, it isn’t so unusual to see pupils from what Alistair Campbell memorably called ‘bog standard comprehensives’ who have managed to get the A grades that have got them into Oxbridge.  It’s a myth that the best teachers are all in the independent school sector – many of the best-motivated, best-qualified choose to remain in the State sector from pure idealism.  But it is unarguable that State-sector schools do not have access to the same resources as the top independent schools (Eton has a palazzo in Florence, for f**** sake!) and I suspect it’s fair to say that the learning environment will rarely be as encouraging.  Family and home environment strikes me as hugely important here, and many of the candidates I interview cite it as an important factor.  Even so, in my view the children who do well in these circumstances are genuinely truly extraordinary.

So what?  Well privilege clearly plays a part in filling Oxbridge.  Top independent schools have the resources, time and space to get a lot out of pupils who, in other circumstances, might not achieve very much (which is what parents are hoping when they stump up the extortionate fees).  Intelligence, on the other hand, may not be as crucial as most would think, an average IQ is fine.  But what strikes me as crucial is motivation, ambition and drive; and the ability to channel that into an effective work ethic from an early age.  This is something that the independent schools can, and do, nurture but they aren’t the only route.  My personal take is that the best candidates I see, and the ones who, I suspect, will achieve most in their lives, are the ones who have somehow dug it out for themselves.

Review: Jurassic World

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I think I could be described as a ‘pragmatic optimist’.  If you ask me if glass is half-full or half-empty, my response is likely to be that it’s the wrong size.  So having lashed out my £13.99 on iTunes to download ‘Jurassic World’ (it’ll be cheaper here when it comes out on DVD in a week or so), I wasn’t really expecting much more than a couple of hours of dinosaur-based thrills and spills, not unlike the previous entries in the ‘Jurassic…’ genre.

Which turned out to be a wise thing.

(Do be aware that there are some – sort of – spoilers down below)

You can sort of imagine the script conference at the Steven Spielberg Jurassic Division offices on a smoggy LA Monday morning just before principal photography started.  There’d be a long conference table, strewn with dog-eared copies of the script and those irritating take-out coffee cups with lids, and perhaps the odd 500ml Evian bottle for the more health conscious.  Sitting slumped around the table is a small gaggle of casually dressed movie execs, some of whom are wearing baseball caps and at least one of whom – who has a beard – is wearing his cap backwards.  There’s a small flurry of activity as two men arrive and set up a big flip-chart thing on an easel at the head of the table.  Then Steven Spielberg himself comes in and they all kind of sit-up a bit.

Steven:  OK guys, we’re about to start shooting so let’s just check that this script is ready to go.

He flips up the cover of the pad to reveal ‘Check List’ written at the top in black sharpie.

Steven:  We’ll just go through the list of script elements.  Sing out if you have the answer.  First: hunky hero?

Exec 1:  Yup, Chris Pratt.

Steven:  Great.  Spunky but quirky heroine?

Exec 2:  Bryce Dallas Howard: she’s ginger and she wears high heels while running through the jungle.

Steven:  Brilliant.  Evil corporate mo’fo?

Exec 3:  Vincent d’Onofrio.  He gets eaten by a Velociraptor

Steven:  Fantastic – great casting by the way!  Corrupted clever guy?

Exec 1:  We went with that Chinese-American geneticist from Jurassic Park 1.

Steven:  Wasn’t he a good guy then?

Exec 1:  He did some sympathetic eyebrow work in Act 1 but it was kind of undeveloped.

Steven:  OK, well let’s see how it goes.  What about annoying kids?

Exec 4:  Yup.

Steven:  How many?

Exec 4:  We went with two: both boys.

Steven:  Great, well that’s new.  Anyone I’ve missed?

Exec 5 (with hat on backwards):  Yeah, we got an Indian billionaire who seems to own the Park and flies a helicopter; and we got the annoying kids’ parents who may or may not be getting divorced.

Steven:  I like the sound of the billionaire, what does he do?

Exec 5:  He crashes the helicopter and dies in the middle of Act 2.

Steven:  That’s a shame.

Exec 5:  Yeah but it was hard to see where we’d take him.  We’ve left him there as ‘lead token ethnic’.

Steven:  So we got some other ethnic minorities?

Exec 5:  Yeah, Chris Pratt has a black assistant: he’s a good guy.

Steven:  Does he make it?

Exec 5:  No idea: we don’t see a lot of him after he’s made his point.

Steven:  OK, what about the annoying kids’ parents?  What’s the story?

Exec 6:  We kind of left that hanging.  The audience can kind of fill it in for themselves.

Steven:  OK.  How about new dinos?

Exec 7: We got two: a T-Rex/Velociraptor genetically-engineered hybrid – he’s a bad dinosaur, representing global capitalism and the military-industrial complex – and a great big aquatic one which eats the bad dino and represents the awesome power of mother nature.  It eats a Great White Shark too – it’s pretty cool.

Steven:  Love it!  So what’s the story?

Exec 1:  We wanted to turn the franchise around.  So we asked the question, what happens when the military industrial complex gets interested in astonishing possibilities offered by the science of genetics, and what would the sociological impacts be, at both the macro- and micro-levels?

Steven:  So what’s the answer?

Exec 1:  It turns out it’s the same as before.  The dinosaurs escape and eat a bunch of people while the hunky hero saves the annoying kids.

Steven:  Damn right!  Let’s roll.

Jeremy Corbyn Erotic Fan Fiction

Over on Twitter, the generally respectable @Bri174 has suggested that Jeremy Corbyn erotic fan fiction might actually be a thing.  It wasn’t a possibility that had occurred to me… until now.  After nearly twenty seconds hard thought, here’s an extract from ’50 Shades of Red’:

Jeremy took a small black notebook from an inner pocket and briefly riffled through the pages, searching for a number.  After a few moments he found what he was looking for.  He lifted the telephone receiver on his desk and punched in a number.  Then listened to the ring tone, his breath coming faster.

“Hello, who is this?”

“It’s Jeremy”

“Oh hi… sorry I didn’t pick up earlier, I’m in bed”

A wolfish grin flickered across the veteran activist’s lips and he ran his finger round the neckline of his Co-op Fairtrade natural wool and cotton vest.

“In bed?  What are you wearing?”

“Well Jeremy”, came the reply, “it’s soft and black…”

“Describe it”, he almost snarled.

“It just comes down to my hips…”

“Go on!”

“And it has ‘Solidarity with Palestine’ printed on the front.  I bought it from a stall at the Party Conference”

Jeremy felt a strange and intense heat growing within him.

“I want you to tell me’, he said in a commanding voice, “exactly what position you would like me to…”

His voice caught for a moment as his excitement grew but he recovered himself.

“Ah, you would like me to adopt on… the… ah…ah… the Syrian refugee crisis…”

He was nearly there now…

Etc etc etc…

The Glittering Prizes

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I can’t imagine that David Cameron is particularly delighted that Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s new and ‘unauthorised’ (I’ll say!) biography of him suggests that he might have indecently assaulted a dead pig’s head during a Piers Gaveston Society party at Oxford in the 1980s.  No Prime Minister wants to walk into the Commons for PMQs to a chorus of pig-grunts.

I suppose the big lesson in this – apart, obviously, from keeping your schlong away from the mouths of deceased livestock if you have any political ambitions at all – is that it is unwise to piss off vengeful billionaires who have donated millions to your political campaigns and have time on their hands.  I certainly try to avoid it.

Oddly enough, nobody has ever invited me to a ‘sex-with-dead-pigs’ party and I never heard of any happening at the university I did attend (York, as it happens: a nice place and a very good university, but lacking the cachet of Oxbridge).  I expect it was all taking place in secret.

The journalist and educationalist Toby Young tweeted a link today to a piece he wrote back in 2009 about Oxford’s Secret Societies which does seem to offer some insight into the rise of pig-fucking parties.  Young characterises the Oxford social ‘elite’ in his day (he was at Oxford at the same time I was at York, and overlapped with Cameron) as being  young, rich but essentially middle-class ‘wannabes’, aping the fantasy idea of the aristocracy and Oxford that had inspired Evelyn Waugh particularly, but also P G Wodehouse and others.

In 1981 Granada TV ran a hugely successful dramatisation of Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited‘ and Harper’s and Queen published ‘The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook‘ in 1982.  These had a significant impact on some students of the time.  Public school was cool and, all of a sudden, a tranche of ex-public school types (and wannabes) at universities across the country swapped their disguise of skinny black jeans, ear-rings and Clash t-shirts, for tweed, corduroy and Barbour jackets.  I would mock them more if I hadn’t, to my shame, been mildly caught up in it too.

Students at British universities have always done stupid things like get drunk, take drugs and flash their nether regions at inappropriate times but in the 1980s, there was a period when it was cool to do so whilst dressed in white tie and implausibly claiming that your grandfather was an Earl.

Of course, whilst students like David Cameron were striving to appear to be languid but debauched aristocrats to their fellow undergraduates, they were actually working their arses off to get ahead.  In the job I currently do, I get to see raw ‘aptitude’ (i.e., IQ) scores for a range of young people, mostly undergraduates and recent graduates, and it’s noticeable that those for candidates who are, or who have been, at Oxbridge, aren’t significantly different from those who have attended less prestigious institutions.  A couple of years ago I was chatting with Tony Little, then Headmaster of Eton (one of my sons went there: aren’t I grand?) and he told me that Etonians were like swans: they appear to glide along effortlessly but under the surface they’re pedalling away like the clappers to succeed.

What I suspect this means is that the kids who get in to Oxbridge – and the other top universities – are those who discovered their work ethic in the early-to-mid teens and  acted on it.  This is certainly true now and was also the case in the 70s and 80s.  Back in 1982, I thought about applying to Oxford but an unusual – at the time – wave of reality washed over me when I thought about how much work I would have to do to convince any half decent college to take me, so I didn’t waste my time.

So what is the significance of the alleged pig’s-head molestation?  Zero, I think.  It will doubtless be acutely embarrassing for David Cameron, particularly if the alleged photograph does emerge, but it was something that happened when he was a pissed kid.  I have no doubt whatsoever that at the same time that the future Prime Minister was pretending to be a louche aristo, others at Oxford, from a similar background, were smoking dope in evil-smelling squats plotting the imminent downfall of the bourgeois hegemony, or drunkenly dressing in SS uniforms; whilst spending the rest of the week assiduously attending lectures and tutorials, writing essays and polishing their CVs for the graduate milk-round.

That’s just what some students do.

After I graduated, I went to Sandhurst to learn how to be an army officer.  One of the student officers in my company was an Oxford graduate who had been a member of ‘The Assassins’ as an undergrad.  He was one of the most startlingly dull and stodgy twerps one could imagine: more Rotary Club than Hellfire Club.  It had clearly been a big moment in his life but it had passed.  I don’t know what he does now – like me, he didn’t stay in the Regular Army – but accountancy or chartered surveying wouldn’t surprise me.  I wonder how many pigs he abused?

Edited to add:

It’s worth mentioning that I strongly doubt that the pig story is true.  As the ex-Political Editor of the ‘News of the World’ points out in a blog for the Spectator the provenance is incredibly weak. ‘An anonymous source knows a bloke who has a picture but we haven’t seen it…’ would get laughed out of any news conference outside of Exaro News.  No publisher I’ve ever worked with would have allowed me to put this in a book without some rock-solid corroboration.  I suspect that it’s there for three reasons:

  1.  David Cameron’s career would abruptly end if he was to go to court to force the authors, publisher etc to prove that he had had sex with a pig’s head.  So he can’t sue.
  2. Even if he did, Lord Ashcroft has deep enough pockets to fight the case to the bitter end.  He is richer than Cameron by several orders of magnitude.
  3. And, of course, Ashcroft is co-owner of the publishing house.

As it happens, I was an intelligence officer in Belize, where Ashcroft is based, in the early 1990s.  All sorts of stories used to circulate there about the supposedly nefarious ways in which he had made his money, none of which, so far as I could tell, had an iota of truth to them.  But chat with an ordinary Belizean and they would assure you that Ashcroft was the biggest gangster in the country. Unsubstantiated rumours are a very cheap and effective way of trashing someone’s reputation.

Nostradamus strikes again! Not.

So, it turns out my ability to predict the future is not quite at the Nostradamus level (see the post below the one).  Ooops!

Oddly enough I was described in my final report from the Advanced Command and Staff Course as a ‘controversialist’ primarily because I devoted some attention during the course to rubbishing the UK Ministry of Defence’s ‘Global Strategic Trends’ document which purported to identify what the world was likely to be like 40 years hence.  I really should have known better than to try to predict what Sepp Blatter might do over the next week or so..

I suspect what has happened is not dissimilar to the moment in ‘Downfall’ – much beloved by YouTube satirists – when Hitler realises that Felix Steiner’s tattered rag-bag of Waffen-SS units wasn’t coming to rescue him from the Soviet Army Groups besieging Berlin.  I’m not suggesting that Blatter will marry his mistress, poison his dog and shoot himself, but maybe he does finally realise that the game is up.