Lions led by Donkeys

This is the second of my blogs about the omnishambles Conservative Election Campaign. The first here looked at the fall out and called for the party to get rid of May. This one is going to look at the campaign most of us experienced on the ground. It was just as big a shambles as the campaign led by May, but at least it was leavened by the party’s poor bloody infantry, without whom the result would have been much, much worse.

Things were bad from the start with disputes over candidate selection. I cannot emphasise enough how important a good candidate is for a campaign, get it right and it energises activists, in marginals, a good candidate makes people from surrounding constituencies want to get out and help them, and most important of all the right candidate in the right seat offers a wide appeal to non-committed voters and possible switchers. Now, local Conservative Associations have their faults, but let’s be clear they all want a Conservative MP elected in their constituency, the officers and members know their constituency and they are far more likely than some remote figure in Central Office to understand what is likely to tickle their electorate’s erogenous zones. Unless they want to appoint the love child of Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin their advice should be heeded and every effort made to accommodate them.

This did not happen, there seemed to two main bugbears. The first was some seats quite sensibly wanted to have local candidates. In seats where you are trying to unseat the opposition this is always a shrewd move. No one likes a carpet bagger imposed from outside but this happened far too often in marginals where the party, expecting a landslide, imposed trendy young hipsters instead of gnarled old councillors who had been around the block and knew the ropes. Where you have a good local candidate anything is possible. In Westmorland and Lonsdale the Conservatives came within 800 votes of defeating a national party leader for the first time since 1931, destroying an 8000 majority in the process. But you have to wonder, if the seat had been considered winnable whether Central Office would have allowed that candidate to be selected in the first place.

The second problem with candidate selection involved safe seats who wanted to select a well known party figure. The best example of this was the farrago over selecting a candidate for Aldershot. The MP for Aldershot, Sir Gerald Howarth was standing down leaving a very tasty 14000 majority. The local party wanted their shortlist to include the MEP for South East England Dan Hannan. Lo and behold when the three person shortlist was handed down from Central Office Hannan wasn’t on it. Now I’ve been told in the past by the powers that be that Hannan is ‘difficult’. My immediate response to that is ‘so bloody what.’ Churchill was difficult, so was Thatcher and even Macmillan resigned the Conservative Party whip for a while during the thirties. As our candidate told me whilst we were campaigning we need to make the case for small government, markets and low taxation again. We do and Hannan is matchless when it comes to making that case. We need someone with his talent and eloquence making that case from the House of Commons, not festering in the dog days of the UK presence in the EU parliament.

The next issue where the campaign went seriously awry was targeting winnable seats. In 2010 and 2015 careful thought was given to the seats into which we would pour most effort. There was no such thought given to targeting this time, just ministers, candidates and activists tearing round like headless chickens in the vain pursuit of a landslide. Early in the campaign I was asked to travel to three different seats, two of them more than fifty miles away. Needless to say I gave those two a miss, especially as I had local friends who were urging me to campaign in Westmorland and Lonsdale to help drown the ‘wet lettuce’ (the affectionate local nickname for Tim Farron). George and I managed to get up there a couple of times leafleting before the official request to help there came, after that, apart from Polling day when our branch was running a Polling Station just over the border in Lancaster and Fleetwood, it became the focal point for our efforts. We even managed to persuade one of the excellent Skipton and Ripon Vote Leave team to go up there to deliver leaflets, even though he wasn’t a Conservative Party member! We fell short of winning the seat by just under 800 votes. If it had been targeted from day one, or if we had had a half decent national campaign, the wet lettuce would have been well and truly drowned.

In future campaigns the party needs to take much more notice of local activists, it also needs to do far more to include them in the process of making party policies. I don’t know of a single party member who would have been stupid enough to come up with a policy like the ‘dementia’ tax. How we do that is a topic for a future blog in this series.

Conservative Members Please Read

If what Iain Martin says here in his reaction life email is true, all Conservatives who feel angry and betrayed at the incompetence of the General Election Campaign have an opportunity to put pressure  on the cabinet through their MPs and constituency chairmen. Please email them and tell them that May’s position is untenable. Demand that the cabinet coalesce around a candidate who can be in place before the Brexit negotiations begin on the 19th of June. After that we can look at the longer term reforms the party needs. The ideas of the Bow Group here are a good place to start

If you agree please share with all your Conservative friends and colleagues.

Theresa May might not survive the next 72 hours

IAIN MARTIN

As I write this, in a car speeding north through the Swedish countryside to a conference to make a speech (about how well Brexit is going…) the phone is buzzing with texts and calls from London. All manner of shenanigans are ongoing. After much argument, the Prime Minister has announced the beginning of a cabinet that keeps the top five in place. There was an interlude during which the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary were trying to broker a deal with the Prime Minister and demanding a new style of government. In these talks Boris was the intermediary or if this carries on much longer will he become the assassin?

Some ministers are ready to say they will refuse to serve under May. Other members of the cabinet are actively engaged in trying to save Theresa May’s premiership on the basis that it is not immediately apparent who would take over if she steps down. Other senior members of the government have heard nothing – not a squeak! – from Number 10. There is astonishment at what is going on. “She’s f***ed,” says a key minister. “No, there is no vacancy and we cannot spend the next six months knocking lumps out of each other,” says another. “What a disaster,” says another.

What has introduced extra urgency and panic is the bizarre statement that the Prime Minister made on Friday afternoon after suffering a catastrophic election result in which she fell short of an overall majority. Her statement on Friday, widely expected to be contrite and heartfelt, was so detached and inappropriate that it had an electrifying effect.

There had been a mood in the upper reaches of the Tory tribe that if she had the numbers (and she does, just, with the DUP) then the best way forward was for her to continue at least in the short and medium term.

But the statement may have changed that, say MPs. It was unnerving, unsettling and unacceptable to a lot of senior Tories, to say nothing of the impact on the voters who will have had their concerns from the campaign about her confirmed. She is in shock and tired, but it was a performance that suggested she has failed to process what has happened and what it means. This is all very sad. May is a patriot and a decent person, but that might not be enough. We’re in country before party territory.

Here is one potential scenario explained to me by a furious minister. A senior member of the cabinet needs to be agreed on as the replacement, he says, with a whipping operation, starting immediately. That person can present themselves as the cabinet’s unanimous choice. The 1922 Committee can then canvas views and agree a way forward quickly on Monday morning. Might a bold or reckless backbencher want to stand too in such circumstances creating a contest? Is the country in the mood for a Tory leadership campaign? It is highly doubtful.

The skeleton “top five” cabinet is designed to head that off. But will it? With some organisation and a proper operation there could be a new PM in place on Monday, ahead of Brexit talks beginning on the 19th of June. This is the historic choice facing the cabinet tonight. Move, resign, support, or wait.

There will be plenty of time afterwards to deconstruct what went wrong for May. Safe to say, the 2017 election is easily the biggest screw-up by a Conservative party leadership since last year. Yet, even by the surreal standards of the summer of 2016, when David Cameron held a referendum on EU membership, lost it and had to resign, there is something special about what just happened to Theresa May, who is still (at time of writing) the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Just a month ago May was the Warrior Queen, an Elizabeth I figure in the mind of her biggest admirers. Icy, sure. But steadfast and ballsy with it. The voters had a less detailed impression. Just a vague sense that she had been the grown-up who turned up on the scene at the right moment last year during the crazy Tory leadership contest. Even though she was popular, it was – in the words of a prescient Tory sage early in the campaign – a popularity that could be measured as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

So it turned out. Although no-one who suggested that May should go for an early election envisaged her presiding over the worst campaign since the Battle of Hastings with a manifesto that rained munitions down on Tory voters and contained no coherent message on the economy. What wasn’t in the script was a complete shitshow of a Tory campaign. It was a mind-bendingly awful effort. Inept, with no clear command and control structure until too late. It was by turns arrogant and confused. Stern and then shambolic. Creepy, then crap. Presidential and then pathetically pleading.

Still, it should not be forgotten that May had called an election, following advice for perfectly sensible reasons. It was not simply the benign state of the opinion polls. The sequencing of the Brexit talks demanded it. There are, or were until yesterday, two likely ways in which the talks can unfold and neither would have benefited from holding an election in 2019 or 2020 at a difficult moment. Knock it back to 2022, by going in 2017, that was the the theory.

Why? There would either be a satisfactory deal to leave in March 2019 with a two year transition period to smooth the uncoupling for both parties. The eurozone relies on London, Europe’s main capital market. The UK wants to trade.

Or, no deal would be done and Britain would have to make plans to step away without a settlement. A period of trying for status quo deals on subjects such as air travel and security would then unfold. Again, an election in the middle of this tricky adjustment or shortly afterwards would not be an ideal moment. That’s why she went early. But she made the most spectacular mess of it and the public figured her out.

Now? On Brexit? Who knows. There is a good team in place at DEXEU, the Department for Exiting the European Union, although without the comfort of a proper Commons majority their work becomes much more difficult and the starting position weaker in talks.

Anyway, more of that another time. First, the urgent question is an old question. How is the Queen’s government to be carried on? It simply can’t go on like this for more than 72 hours with the markets reopening on Monday morning and a terror campaign being waged against Britain.

Have a good weekend.

Iain Martin
Editor & Publisher,
Reaction.

You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!

This is the first in a series of blogs exploring the complete shambles of the current Conservative Party. No one has been a greater critic of Jeremy Corbyn than me. I regard him as a terrorist loving, Islamist apologising traitor. I hold Corbyn in contempt because of his refusal to condemn the abuses of the old Socialist States in Eastern Europe and his advocacy of the pernicious policy of nuclear disarmament. If people like him had been in charge 40 years ago we would have lost the Cold War and the Eastern bloc countries, and probably ourselves, would be enslaved by repressive Soviet style Communism. Despite that decent people voted for him. I don’t blame them. I blame us. I’ll explore why I think that was so in a later blog. But what I want to do now is map out what I think should be the first steps out of this unholy mess.

The first thing is that May has to go. She called an unnecessary General Election and lost her majority. She adopted a presidential style campaign based on strong leadership whilst simultaneously displaying the most appalling weakness and petulance. She has a tin ear for politics. In the most important General Election since WWII you do not kick your core vote in the teeth. This was precisely what May did with the ‘dementia’ tax and getting rid of the triple lock on pensions. In short, when you have the type of lead May did at the beginning of the campaign, to win, all you have to do is not make false steps or mistakes. It’s like carrying a precious vase across a slippery dance floor. Instead of walking across the floor carefully, May and her team decided to play ‘keepy uppy’ with it like a bunch of half-witted teenagers. It was no wonder the lead was smashed into a thousand pieces.

May’s USP was that she was uninspiring, but safe. That has gone and her credibility is non-existent. It is impossible now for her to command confidence in the country or inspire respect from EU negotiators. She has to go and be replaced by someone who can. The honourable thing for her to do would be to resign. But I doubt very much she will do this.

Conservative Party leadership elections are run by the 1922 Committee of back bench MPs. A contest can be triggered in two ways; if 15% of Conservative MPs write to the Chairman of the 1922 Committee saying they no longer have confidence in the leader of the Conservative Party; or if he or she resigns. Candidates can be nominated by two MPs and there are then a series of ballots within the parliamentary party with the candidate with the lowest number of votes dropping out after each ballot until the final two left standing go forward to a vote of party members.

Even as a paid up and long suffering party member of the Conservative Party I can see it is absurd to go through this process at a time of national crisis. It maybe an exaggeration, but it is as daft as Churchill going through such a process in May 1940. Unfortunately, unlike in May 1940 there is no obvious candidate. Internal party democracy, even amongst MPs is a vastly over-rated concept. Instead the 1922 and whips office should take soundings over the member of the cabinet most likely to be able to unite the party, work with the DUP, restore the Party’s reputation for competence and negotiate Brexit. It’s a desperately difficult task and as an outsider looking in I don’t honestly know which member of the cabinet would be most suitable. It could be someone currently obscure. For instance, Baldwin was effectively last man standing when he became PM in 1923, but he navigated the country through the shoals of the interwar years as effectively as anyone could. The people who should know the best person for the job is the 1922 leadership and the whips office. They need to collaborate to achieve the necessary coronation.

One way to manage this would be to cooperate with the DUP. The Conservatives can’t form a government without the DUP. They should tell the Conservatives that Theresa May does not command their confidence, but if she was replaced with someone who did, they would be prepared to enter a coalition which would provide the majority government the country needs. Once a mutually acceptable leader of the coalition was appointed PM, it is inconceivable that they would not become Conservative leader, Churchill, for instance, became Conservative leader only after he was appointed head of the war time coalition. I do not like all the DUP stands for, but I do not doubt for one second their patriotism and loyalty to the UK. Now is the time for them to help rescue the country from the shambles the Conservative Party has created. Getting rid of Theresa May as PM is the first step in doing this. The sooner she is gone the better.

To conclude, by losing our majority through rank incompetence, we, the Conservative Party have let the country down in a shameful manner. We face the appalling prospect, in two or three years time, of a Marxist Prime Minister whose values are alien to everything Britain represents. If this calamity is to be avoided we have to make amends and we have to find a leader who can do it.

The Left/Liberal Butt Hurt is flowing like a River

We won Brexit. Trump won the presidency. The left is distraught. I haven’t laughed so much since Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle team threw away a fifteen-point lead in the Premiership title race. However, the more interesting question is how it happened. We won Brexit against the entire political establishment and Trump won in the US with virtually every newspaper against him.

 

Step forward the internet in general and social media in particular. Now, I’ve always been a politics anorak. You name any obscure politician from about now, back to the 18th century, and I’ll probably know a bit about him. For example, David Margesson was Chief Whip in Baldwin’s 1930s government. Hugh Dalton, the inept Chancellor of the Exchequer in Attlee’s post war government was the son of Canon Dalton, the tutor of the future George V and his older brother on their world cruise. The original W.H. Smith was the model for the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy in HMS Pinafore (And I didn’t look those up, honest – I have a brain like flypaper, all sorts of crap sticks to it.) However, not even I can think of such a concatenation of shocks where the establishment has been shaken to its core. The BBC – and others – all blame populism as if that were a bad thing. It isn’t. Since WW2 left/liberalism has dominated the media and leftists have believed that they could control an allegedly ‘progressive’ narrative. Hence, they have encouraged the belief that the British Empire was repressive – it wasn’t – it did more to promote civilisation and progress than any other global institution. They have promoted the idea that racism is a cardinal sin. Racism is wrong, but the definition has been expanded to such an extent it has become meaningless and the allegation of racism is used by the left as a means to close down any debate they don’t want to have – for instance over FGM, forced marriage and the repression of women in many Muslim communities.

 

Before the advent of the internet and social media, people who held such views were isolated. However, about 10 years ago a group of pioneers started writing right wing blogs. The best of these, and one that is still going is the Guido Fawkes Blog, there were liberal Tories like Iain Dale and people who opposed the increasingly wet liberalism of the Church of England like the magisterial Archbishop Cranmer blog (again, that one is still going and well worth reading). The point was right wingers like me no longer felt isolated. We could read His Grace, Guido and Iain Dale and be heartened that there were others of like mind. This became even more clear with the development of twitter. Pretty soon we had a network of online friends who we could rely on to help us mock the left. People like @battsby @Marcherlord1 @skiplicker and @bernerlap (that’s me) attracted thousands of followers by being funny, iconoclastic, argumentative and completely refusing to obey the rules of political discourse set out by the left liberal establishment. The result was we were blocked by many leading political journalists and politicians. It worried us not one bit and we boasted of it on our twitter biographies.

 

The question was though; how did we breakout of twitter and actually make an impact beyond the tight knit right wing community of the twitter sphere? Some didn’t want to, and that is fine. Some of us did it by making an impact in the mainstream media step forward @Marcherlord1 and his brilliant black op, Tories for Corbyn, which in all probability has destroyed Labour as an electoral force for the foreseeable future. My road was different and the idea of how to do it came from reading about digital campaigning in the 2015 general election. The Conservatives poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into the digital campaign. Facebook is essentially a very sophisticated advertising platform, and the Conservatives’ digital team mastered it. After we won the 2015 election I knew that the Brexit referendum would come, I knew I could campaign on twitter, but I also knew it would be an echo chamber, however, six out of ten people in the UK are on Facebook, it is far more than an echo chamber. The question was, what was the best way to reach the people I wanted to reach in the Brexit referendum, the people the left regard as old, thick, poor white people. I couldn’t afford to pay for the kind of metrics that the main campaigns used but I worked out that the best way to engage these people was by sports clubs. What I would regard as proper football clubs, the likes of Sunderland, Burnley and Millwall. And Rugby League clubs. I set up a Facebook page called “More than a Star”, as in “We’re More than a Star on Someone Else’s Flag”. A star on someone else’s flag is exactly what we would have become if we had lost the Brexit referendum. The way it worked was I’d put a post up on “More than a Star”, if it was popular with people who’d liked the page then I’d buy a dollar a day Facebook advertising for it, targeted it at supporters of the sports clubs I thought would be likely to support Brexit. It worked, in the top week for the page during the campaign, ‘More than a Star” got over half a million hits. Most weeks it was between 250000 and 350000. I don’t know if it changed anyone’s mind but it certainly reinforced the views of anyone who wanted to vote for Brexit and made them less likely to backslide because they knew there were plenty of others supporting them. It was also very helpful over the last weekend of the campaign when campaigning was officially suspended because of Jo Cox’s death. At a time when Stronger In were doing not very much, we used twitter and Facebook to make the economic case for Brexit.

 

I don’t know what impact the hits on the Facebook page or my twitter feed had. I hope I boosted morale. But the point is, a political nobody from the top of a hill in the wilds of Yorkshire could broadcast to half a million people in one week in a national referendum campaign by a bit of canny advertising, the use of a couple of iPad photo apps, and an evil sense of humour. Now, if you look at the money spent by Leave.EU, Vote Leave and the Trump campaign you can see why social media has become so important in making the weather in political campaigns. They spent millions and it worked. Trump spent less than Clinton, but spent the money smarter and won. Partly it worked because of clever targeting, but mainly it worked because Brexit campaigners and Trump were pushing at an open door. The reason for this is simple. To quote the greatest US President of my lifetime, Ronald Reagan, “The trouble with our Liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s that they know so much that isn’t so.” It’s what psychologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’. Liberals regard the type of people who voted for Brexit and for Trump as thick because they don’t suffer from the ‘cognitive dissonance’ from which liberals suffer. They know you have to live within your means. They know the western powers aren’t the cause of all the world’s ills. They know wanting control of borders isn’t racist. They know when they see a camp full of fit young men of fighting age in Calais, they’re not refugees, they’re economic migrants. They know a trade organisation doesn’t need a parliament, a civil service, or God help us, an army; but a nascent state does. They know it’s wrong to overlook law breaking by minorities and above all they know it’s right to love their country and be proud of it. The internet has told people who hold those views they’re not alone. It’s allowed them to see that they can take on the left/liberal establishment and win and has stopped that establishment from making the political weather. That is something for which we should all be grateful.

 

Mirror, mirror on the wall: A modern fairy tale

 

Once upon a time in a small village, called Bethnal Green, a group of people set up a cooperative tea room. The village tea room had been badly run, it was losing money, the owner was not supplying the needs of either the villagers or the many tourists who flocked to the pretty village. Attractive tea rooms were a speciality of the area and everyone felt it would be sad if the pretty village of Bethnal Green lost its tea room. People came together, money was raised and the cooperative tea room was launched. It very soon became profitable and was a source of pride for everyone living in the village.

One person who was particularly proud of the tea room was the local headmaster, a very kind and popular man who wanted to see the villagers recognised for all the hard work they had done. There was an organisation that supported such rural ventures, called the Bucolic Order (BO for short). Unfortunately, it did not confine its activities to these awards. It supported outdoor activities like hiking and cycling. It attempted to encourage bird watching and conservation projects. It was wary about traditional rural pursuits and expressed deep concern about modern farming methods. But the head master didn’t realise this. His only interest was seeing the villagers recognised for their efforts so he decided to recommend the tea room for one of the organisation’s awards.

On the tea room committee were representatives of the farming, hunting, shooting and fishing community who were horrified at the prospect of receiving an award from such an obviously left wing organisation. They felt the tea room should be ‘non-political’ at all costs so they demanded that the head master’s recommendation be turned down. It didn’t matter that most of the villagers, customers and suppliers weren’t aware of the ‘political’ nature of the awards. That most villagers would have been happy to see their efforts rewarded, irrespective of the source. Or that, turning down such an award would be obviously hostile to the hiking, cycling, conservationist and bird watching community. Or that the award would have positive effects like publicising the tea room and encouraging visitors. They also did not appear to be worried that many customers and suppliers were hikers, cyclists and conservationists. What mattered to the hunters, shooters and anglers was that they signalled their virtues to all those who might support them, irrespective of how others might feel. Despite the best efforts of all those who desired the good publicity and recognition that such an award might bring the cooperative tea room committee asked the head master to withdraw his nomination so that, in their judgement at least, the tea room could remain ‘non-political’.

The Sham of British Local Democracy 2

 

That’s three and a half hours of my life I won’t get back. I’ve written before here about the sham of British local democracy but today it got up close and personal. First some background. In the 1990s a local water company needed a new water treatment works near where we now live. Under threat of compulsory purchase, a local farmer, unwillingly, sold them land to build it on. It is surrounded by his fields, on the edge of a grouse moor half a mile from a single track adopted road and several miles from the nearest public transport.

The plant was in operation for about ten years until the water company decided it was surplus to requirements, closed it down and sold it on, without giving the farmer from whom it had been virtually expropriated the chance to buy it back. Recently, a planning application was submitted wanting to convert the water treatment works to a residence. The original owner would never have sold the land for residential development and he does not want a residential property in the middle of his land. Our local parish council objected in the hope that the unsustainability of the site would be obvious even to the most myopic local government bureaucrat.

However, they did not realise that the government’s National Planning Policy Framework had moved the goal posts. It means any redundant building, just about anywhere except a National Park, can be converted for residential use, even if the original owner had been fleeced, and even if the property was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The result was the planning officers slavishly followed the NPPF and recommended the application be approved under delegated powers. To their credit, the ward councillors refused to allow the approval to go through on the nod, and insisted it went to the Local Authority Planning Committee.  And that’s why I spent three and a half hours this afternoon, losing the will to live, attending the committee so I could object to this particular planning application.

The first agenda item offered me a smidgeon of hope. An entirely sensible application to build a house was passed despite the committee chairman, and the planning officers saying it contravened the NPPF, which is clearly as sacred to bureaucrats and councillors as if it were brought down from Mount Sinai on tablets of stone by Moses himself. All the other applications were accepted and unquestioningly followed the advice of the council officers, despite in one case, extremely worrying issues about the state of the sewers and flood risks being raised by a parish councillor and objector. Finally, it came to the application I was waiting for. I objected, the ward councillor and one other supported the objection, then the planning solicitor intervened saying that refusal to accept the application contravened the NPPF and that the committee could not go against the sacred text. With the exception of the ward councillor and one other, all the other councillors (representing all parties) caved in. If that is the relationship between local authorities and central government you really have to ask yourself what is the point of local government at all, and is it any wonder hardly anyone votes in local elections. What was worse was I got the distinct impression that the application had only been called to committee by the grown-ups, to quiet the agitated children who councillors needed to vote for them every 4 years. It was insulting and patronising.

Since I was eighteen, I’ve never missed a vote in national, local or (spit) EU elections, but after today, I think I’m going to have a lie in on local election days in future.

“Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” Captain G. M. Gilbert, US Army psychologist, Nuremberg trials

When I’m feeling down I have two coping strategies, I either watch a feel good film that cheers me up, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one favourite, Singin in the Rain is another. The other alternative is to watch a film so bleak that it makes me realise how totally bloody lucky I am to be me, and living here and now. Last night I adopted the second strategy and watched Schindler’s List. It worked, but the snag with watching a film like Schindler’s List is, although it makes you realise how fortunate you are, if you’re the slightest bit interested in history or philosophy, it raises hideous questions. How could the holocaust happen? How could apparently normal people become involved in such crimes? This is particularly true when you’ve been agonising the nature of evil because of an issue thrown up in your every day life by an encounter with a ‘normal’ and superficially pleasant person.

Let’s not forget most of the people who perpetrated the holocaust were ‘normal’. Just how normal was shown by the book Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. It’s an exceptional historical work. The book takes as its basis the detailed records of one squad from the Nazis’ extermination groups, Police Battalion 101, and explores in detail its composition, its actions, and methods. The crucial thing about this and other Police Battalions involved in the Holocaust was that they were all middle aged men too old and unfit to be conscripted into either the Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS. In the book Browning introduces us to cheerful, friendly, ordinary men who were trained to perform acts of genocide on an industrial scale. The first action in which they were involved was the killing of 1,500 Jews from Józefów ghetto, approximately 100 kilometers south of Lublin in southeastern Poland on July 13, 1942. Twelve out of 500 soldiers opted out when allowed to leave freely. Those of them who felt unable to continue the shooting at point-blank range of prisoners begging for mercy, were asked to wait at the marketplace where the trucks were loaded. The action was finished in seventeen hours. Only a dozen Jews are known to have survived the slaughter. The point that comes over clearly in the account Browning gives is that soldiers who did not want to participate were not compelled to, but over 400, most of whom had reached maturity before being exposed to Nazi propaganda, chose to do so. The book shatters all reassuring fantasies that atrocities – on whatever scale – are carried out by drooling sadistic monsters. It shows how ordinary men can gradually lose their humanity and lightly, casually murder men, women and children. It makes very uncomfortable reading.

But another book, by a US Army psychologist attached to the Nuremberg Trials comes even closer to explaining how such events can happen. G.M Gilbert was the prison psychologist responsible for the Nazi prisoners at Nuremberg, in his account of his experiences, Nuremberg Diary, he wrote:

“In my work with the defendants I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.
Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

Unless you want to explore the deeper realms of metaphysics and theology, I think that is as good a working definition of evil as any I’ve come across. But lack of empathy is not just confined to the Holocaust and the past. And this what I’ve been agonising over, a few weeks ago we were with a distant acquaintance in a pub. His marriage is going through a rocky patch, and despite his wife having a potentially terminal illness, he was joking about becoming a rich widower and planning how to spend his inheritance on a large house. What upset me most was that he was referring to the mother of his children. My skin started to crawl and it has been crawling ever since but, although such a sentiment demonstrates a total lack of empathy, both for his wife and perhaps even more importantly for his children, was it really evil? Our acquaintance will kill no one, he will function in society. But does the casual disregard for his wife’s wellbeing and his failure to consider his children’s grief at her possible death demonstrate a callousness that differs only in degree from that displayed by the ordinary men of the Nazi Police battalions?

I’ve been wracking my brains over this question for several weeks. I’m no closer to knowing the answer. I only know that the more distant this particular acquaintance is, the better I’ll be pleased.