It is not unusual for governments to focus on a big event after a period of crisis. In 1951, the Festival of Britain was meant to rejuvenate the country after years of post-war austerity and rationing. The 2012 London Olympics, presided over by Mayor Boris Johnson, supposedly announced the UK’s recovery from recession with a £27 million opening ceremony.
But games are intended to be boosterish. A 12-day summit on the environment is not an obvious crowd pleaser.
No one can say that, over the course of the past year, we have not had the opportunity as a country to practise the grim arts of grief and mourning. We all know the figures — 127,000 Covid deaths and counting — but I wonder if, in the face of this onslaught, we have lost sight of the vital fact that behind each loss there will be a group of family members and close friends of the deceased setting out on the long, slow trudge down the boggy path of grief.
I started working for the royal family in a temporary role at Balmoral Castle, Her Majesty the Queen’s residence in the Highlands, in 2006. I spotted an advert on my university careers website and thought it might be a good summer stop-gap job until I found something more permanent. I must have made a good impression as, three months later, I found myself one of a few staff members returning to London on the royal flight with HM and her troop of corgis.
The secret is out: the Russian government has been lying to its people. Officially, Russia’s coronavirus death toll for last year — as reported on state television and logged at the World Health Organisation — was an impressively low 86,498 for a population of 146 million. In his traditional December press conference Vladimir Putin proudly reeled off statistics on how quickly Russia’s economy was recovering from the pandemic, and last month he made a triumphant address to a packed public concert to celebrate the anniversary of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
The government’s decision to water down new foreign investment rules designed to protect national security casts serious doubt about its resolve to keep China out of the most sensitive parts of the British economy. Raising the threshold above which an overseas stake must be examined from 15 per cent to 25 per cent will sharply reduce the number of deals facing scrutiny.
The amendment to the National Security and Investment Bill, now wending its way through parliament, was presented by business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng as necessary to show Britain is still ‘open for business’.
One of my favourite things on British Muslim TV is Ask the Alim. An alim is a learned expert in the law. He’ll answer anything, live. The 2020 Best Bits highlights programme included a question about divorce. Can a man take back a woman he has divorced? Good question. It depends whether the divorce is revocable or irrevocable, according to the alim.
Boris Johnson has been doing something similar on Facebook recently: Ask the Prime Minister.
In search of wisdom about how an officious government reluctantly relaxes its grip after an emergency, I stumbled on a 1948 newsreel clip of Harold Wilson when he was president of the Board of Trade. It’s a glimpse of long-forgotten and brain-boggling complexity in the rationing system. ‘We have taken some clothing off the ration altogether,’ he boasts, posing as a munificent liberator. ‘From shoes to bathing costumes, and from oilskins to body belts and children’s raincoats.
Compared with the United States, the UK has so far been relatively cautious about launching stimulus programmes to kick-start the economy. And yet perhaps it doesn’t need to. People are paying off their credit cards, putting some money into the stock market, buying new houses, as well as finally booking a restaurant and getting back to the shops. A lot of money is about to be unleashed on the economy, even if this stimulus is largely invisible now.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s coffin will be carried in a Land Rover. Not any old Land Rover, but a Defender 130 Gun Bus, designed by the Duke for his funeral and adapted by Foley Specialist Vehicles. By chance, years ago, when researching my book on Land Rovers, I visited Foley while they were adapting the Duke’s vehicle. I had to sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding me from discussing the car until now.
First, a little history.