All My Little Words

Thatcher and Her Ism

Posted in Politics, Rage by nickchristian on April 11, 2013

Once upon a time, not so long ago, I was an occasional contributor/compulsive consumer to/of a a fairly popular online forum. I won’t name or link to it. Made up of one subject-agnostic main board and multiple sub-boards catering to smaller groups, discussion could spring from anywhere as threads could be started about anything. The standard of discourse was generally high, the contributors brighter and better informed than your average YouTube commentator: as such I read more than I wrote; I had more to learn than impart. We have two ears and one mouth…. etc etc

Eventually, as one does, I grew tired of it. I had never really fitted in with the community and found the atmosphere to be of an increasingly hostile, Darwinist playground; as a resource Twitter now more than served my appetite for news, essays, opinions and joyous internet nothings. So a year ago I decided not to go back.

Which isn’t really important except that I did go back there on Monday. From before I first visited I remembered that there had been a thread called “Thatcher dead!!!” – there might have been more or fewer exclamation marks but exclamation marks were certainly there – created as a kind of April fool, presumably, to con people into thinking… well, take a guess. There were a few similar threads off which the digital dust was occasionally brushed – Lisa Kudrow RIP being one other notable example – but that one was revived most often. For the lulz.

As long as she was alive, what the thread was about was the promise of jubilation – this is where we will be it said, when that day finally arrives, to record our own exhilaration to pop a digital cork and allow a magnum of vitriolic bubbles to pour forth. After hearing the news the voyeur in me wanted to know if that was indeed what would be happening so I stopped in again briefly. That was indeed what was happening so I didn’t stick around for long.

In a rather more real way that was also what was happening just a few hundred yards from my front door in Brixton. I didn’t like that any more than the online version.

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Not even seven years old when she was defenestrated by her own party, some might say that age is what stops me from really “getting it” – “it” being how people feel – but I don’t think you have to have lived through Thatcher and been directly affected by her policies to dislike the outpouring of glee at her death. And it really is, quite specifically, the glee that I cannot stomach.

More than inevitable, it was right and necessary that her admirers and her detractors should immediately take to battlegrounds online, print, radio and television, to debate her impact at the time and her legacy today. Honest criticism of a person who is dead, particularly one so prominent and who had so much impact on so many, cannot be inappropriate and there’s no such thing as “too soon”.

It’s also not that I think an individual’s death should never be source of satisfaction. When a tyrant, such as Gaddafi, is ousted and then executed, what his death delivers and represents is permanence, a promise that that particular rein of tyranny is over. What the campaign to get Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead to number 1 this week seems to either forget or ignore, is that right up to the moment Dorothy’s house dropped on her head the Wicked Witch of the East was an authoritarian dictator and enslaver of the Munchkin people. Liberated in an instant from bondage I can understand why they might want to sing a little bit.

John O’Farrell, who recently took a sound stuffing as Labour candidate in the Eastleigh by-election, was partly undone by the Daily Mail for confessing his regret that Thatcher herself had not been killed by the Brighton bomb in 1984. Fantasizing about or even taking satisfaction in, the death of someone actively powerful, at least makes some sense to me. If you believe that an individual is responsible for harm and that this harm will be interrupted by their demise, while it does not become morally right it at least can be viewed as logically justifiable – or justifiably logical – and is, in fact, the root of every political assassination ever.

Dancing in the street over the death of an old lady who died in her sleep, even one who once wielded great power and committed egregious harm on a people, serves no logical or practical purpose whatsoever. It is instead the manifestation of nothing more than spite, a spirit of unkindness that might even be the clearest evidence that Thatcher did, in fact, win. According to her friends, she would have been disappointed had people not celebrated her departure, so why give her the satisfaction? Those insisting we show no compassion or kindness for her because she showed none for the miners, the steelworkers, the victims of oppressive regimes she befriended and so many others, are the living embodiment of her vision of Britain, and tacitly admitting defeat.

For if Margaret Thatcher represents anything to me, it’s inhumanity, unkindness and isolation – Russell Brand describes her as “an icon of individualism“. Whether or not “there’s no such thing as society” is a quote that has been manipulated beyond its original meaning, for many it serves as an accurate elogy of Thatcherism: even if it was not true at the time she said it, it certainly became so thanks to her. Beyond mere self-reliance to the abandonment entirely of a common good, of tides that lift all ships, to the idea that for good or ill, your standing in life is 100% down to you and you get what you deserve.

The consequence of this has been, much worse than no society at all, one revolving around rivalry and suspicion, that looks up, down, and across in judgment of you as a commodity or competitor before it does so in simple human empathy. Of course the idea that today is less kind than the day before Thatcher could be nonsense; the suggestion that we are more predisposed towards conflict, less towards cooperation than we were before might be baseless; perhaps she was blameless even if such a shift did occur.

Still, what’s striking to me is the contradiction between Thatcher’s capacity to recognize her own unique strengths and her inability to recognise that the very uniqueness of these strengths meant that her experience could not be applied to a population and used as a basis for an organising philosophy of governance.

I agree that, to one extent or another, there is always something we can do to improve our own situations in life, but I also believe that we all need help and that we all are lucky, or unlucky, to varying degrees. My problem therefore, with Conservatism in general, but Thatcherism in particular, is that it denies the very idea that anyone’s opportunities to succeed are inferior to anyone else’s, or that opportunity plays any part in success at all.

Individuals will always say that they want their children to have better than they did – we know we’re making progress as a society if the next generation climbs higher than the one before. Yet for every generation of government since Thatcher’s, to be in need of the support and assistance of “society” is a reflection of personal failure and private weakness: all that’s needed is a kick up the arse and the will to work – no help is needed, none should be asked for and none, if they can help it, will be given.

Yes, the grocer’s daughter can be prime minister, and the scouse kid from the estate CEO of Tesco but only if they’re exceptional, whereas any idiot can be Mayor of London if they went to the right school. As long as the deck is stacked in favour of some over others then a helping hand and a unifying force, in the form only government can deliver, is required. Thatcher and her progeny believed that government that provides for people was a force for evil: then and now, they could not be more wrong.

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2011 Riots – How does the recent history of law and order policy help to explain the official reaction?

Posted in Domestic Policy, Human Rights, Law and Order, Politics by nickchristian on January 15, 2012

2011 Riots

How does the recent history of law and order policy help to explain the official reaction to “the riots” of August 2011?

“It is plain that he has done nothing which deserves death. I will scourge him, and then he shall go free… But they, with loud voices, insisted on their demand that he should be crucified; and their voices carried the day.”

Introduction

On the 4th August 2011 Mark Duggan, a 29 year-old black man, was shot and killed by police in Tottenham, North London. The following day, at 5pm, 300 people walked from the Broadwater Farm estate where Duggan had lived to Tottenham police station calling for “justice”. At 8.20pm two police cars, left unattended on an adjacent street, were attacked, set alight and “the riots” began.

For the four days that followed “feral youth” roamed the streets of London, terrorizing its citizens, trashing and looting high streets, torching buildings. The most televisual of events, perfectly suited for the age of 24-hour news, this was, at least, how “the riots” were portrayed in the mass media.

This, as it happens, was also how Britain’s political leaders saw them. Obliged to return prematurely from their summer holidays, the Prime Minister and his deputy, the Home Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition and London’s Mayor were beseeched by the media to facilitate the restoration of order, to supply answers and, later, to provide suitable reparation for the victims and punishment for those responsible.

Even as the fires burned, social commentators and stakeholders sought to influence, desperate to be first to provide the definitive explanation for the unrest. Online and in newspapers, opinion pieces covering the broadest imaginable spectrum of judgments were published; the same or similar figures were afforded radio and television airtime to “explain” the causes for the riots; still more heated debate ran rampant online. All “answers”, whether tonally punitive or moralistic, despairing or sympathetic, of press or politician, were united by one thing: preordination. In the days during and immediately after the riots the explanations massively exceeded the availability of facts that might be thought essential to inform them, yet precisely served the political outlook of those that provided them.

Crime and law and order policy in the UK, once an issue for experts and academics and free from outside influence and interference, is no longer characterized by reflection, investigation and study. Instead the approach, of both the political and the mainstream media class, is based upon reaction, rapid response and a rush to the retributive right.

The sense that public policy and expertise have become largely removed from each other is hardly new and far from revelatory. The savvy politician seeking to be “successful” is more aware than ever that success in politics does not necessarily mean getting the policy “right” but is as much to be found in mobilizing the support of both the media and the electorate – often viewed as one and the same. While some eagerness to appeal to public and media support can be found in all areas of policy-making, in none has the distance between expertise and political decision-making become greater and more visibly enshrined and institutionalized, than in the realm of law and order.

Just as Pontius Pilate deferred to a baying mob in the sentencing to death of Jesus Christ, so we find today’s leaders doing the same, as manifested in the popular press and mass media. The difference, as I will demonstrate, is that while Pilate demonstrably goes against what he knows and believes, the alignment between the views of our politicians on law and order, and those of the baying mob is all but total: no resistance is needed; no internal wrangling need take place. The question is not, therefore, how much consensus is there between the different and disparate stakeholders, but how did such a comprehensive convergence occur at all? As the consensus amongst criminologists appears to be that the turning point came in the early years of the 1990s, this essay will look most closely at the relevant events and issues of the start of that decade. I will then discuss the contributions these can be seen to have made to the policies and rhetoric of government officials, and opinions of key media figures in response to the riots.

While the timing and occurrence of the riots themselves were impossible to predict with any precision, over the course of this essay I intend to demonstrate that the rhetorical and judicial responses could have been scripted months, if not years, in advance.  My goal here is not to offer my own response to the riots of August 2011, but to demonstrate that the official response, while intellectually inadequate, was utterly predictable and subservient to the demands of politics, the public and the press.

The Response to the Riots

On the morning of Tuesday August 9th, after three nights of unrest in Britain’s capital, Prime Minister David Cameron arrived back in Britain declaring the riots to be “criminality pure and simple. And there is absolutely no excuse for it.” For Cameron “the young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops that was not about politics or protest, it was about theft.” Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg similarly declared the rioting to be “needless, opportunist theft and violence – nothing more and nothing less”, while London’s Mayor described the events as “acts of sheer criminality” .

Cameron’s dismissive judgement that “[t]here is no justification for the aggression the police and the public faced, or for the damage to property” bore a strong resemblance to the view of Margaret Thatcher following the Brixton riots of 1981, when she declared that “Whatever the problems, nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened.”

The political verdict that the violence was the act of “criminals” and “criminal gangs within the urban underclass”, riots without reason, was in close step with that of the mainstream press. The newspaper The Sun’s editorial of August 7th stated that “The mob that turned the centre of Tottenham into a smoking ruin were not seeking justice. They are criminal thugs who were hell bent on theft, arson and violence.” For the popular press the answers as to “why” the riots occurred were simple and easily identified, with no need for further exploration into “root causes” and certainly no call to understand the situations of the rioters themselves.

For Professor John Solomos of City University the popular verdict suited very much [into] the Government’s requirement that any particular policy or action/inaction of their own not be viewed as a significant contributing factor to the riots:  “Cameron was keen to use this notion to distance the violence from any policies initiated by his administration and to construct them as the outcome of a breakdown of morality and a sense of order in some families and communities.” In other words, it needed not to be seen as result of governmental failings requiring governmental solutions.

With no significant pressure placed on them to do so, the government was therefore able to dismiss/ignore any solutions that could be considered “welfarist” in nature, regardless of the merits of doing so. Instead emphasis and attention was afforded to the area most easily actioned, that of punishment, with the Prime Minister declaring “if you are old enough to commit these crimes, you are old enough to face the punishment.” Prison sentences handed down to individuals convicted of riot-related offences were reported as being 25% longer than normal and the rate of imprisonment was 70% higher for those crimes that took place within the context of the riots. A senior clerk in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service was reported to have circulated instructions to court clerks that they should disregard normal sentencing guidelines and instead impose tougher sentences than usual. The government was evidently eager to send a message, not simply, or even really, to those involved in the riot but to the media and to the greater public.

Stafford Scott, a consultant on racial equality and community engagement, has said that “seeing the riots as linked to criminality and gang culture has made it difficult to give voice to calls to provide more social and economic resources for the communities that live in the most deprived areas”. In a so-called time of “austerity”, when community services are not just not increasing but being cut, this represents not merely a political inconvenience – it would be portrayed as rewarding the rioters – but an economic one as well.

The rioters, rather than being given too little, had been given too much and expected even more. The answer could only be penal: punishment as deterrent rather than as a right response or execution of justice. The answer was to respond better next time, to provide the police with more resources and broader, stronger powers to act. While government for most of the 20th century was characteristically “welfarist”, in Britain in the 21st century it is politically suicidal to be seen as anything less than “tough on crime”. Next I shall be looking at how this situation came about.

The Roots of the Response

While the government might have been keen to isolate the riots and the rioters from any political context, to minimise the intellectual and investigative scope of the response, we are not obliged to do the same with our analysis of the response. Far from unusual or unlikely, the government behaved exactly as could have been predicted, with the ramped-up rhetoric and raised-stakes of the sentencing instructions epitomising the character of cross-party criminal policy of the past twenty years and more.

While sociologist David Garland points to the 1970s as the time when the public and political mood changed, as several decades of welfarism gave way to a vastly more punitive governmental approach to crime, Lord Windelsham and Jon Silverman separately identify the early 90s as marking the period when law and order policy became a key political battleground, with public and media opinion overtaking expertise as an influence on political practice. Ann James and John Raine, similarly, ascribe the transformation to a shift in ideology under Margaret Thatcher which saw the welfare consensus replaced by the culture of the market and government adopt a neo-liberal managerial approach.

Garland notes that a number of features of law and order policy that would once have been thought unlikely if not impossible, such as “mandatory sentences, victims’ rights, community notification laws, private policing, “law and order politics” and an emphatic belief that “prison works”… have become taken-for-granted features of contemporary crime policy”. For most of the twentieth century the British (and to a lesser extent, the American) approach to law and order, had been characterized by the directionally developmental march of institutionally “penal welfarist” arrangements. He therefore finds it counter-intuitive that it should perform an about-turn in the 1970s when “punitive sentiments and expressive gestures” that appear “oddly archaic and anti-modern” began to reappear in official policy.

One crucial element was the normalisation of crime. Although the riots were themselves far from ordinary they were, in some ways an exaggerated form of a negative experience which we have come to accept as ordinary and therefore part and parcel of day-to-day living. In that vein, we do not think of crime as something that the government (in the form of mobilised police resouces) can really prevent, not entirely, nor do we see crime prevention at a social level as something into which it is worth investing resources. It is, instead “a fact of modern life, like pollution or the perils of heavy road traffic that has to be accommodated.” We have, ourselves, become as responsible for crime prevention as the police.

Paradoxically, while this sense of the limited capacity of government to control or reduce crime has been allowed to develop, democratic electoral politics still do not allow for its admission. This contradiction has, according to former government minister Lord Windelsham, led to “the emergence of punitiveness as a reaction which can be exhibited to the general public even if, in anything beyond the short term, it is likely to exacerbate the social blight caused by such extensive criminality.” For Garland “[a] show of force against individuals is used to repress any acknowledgement of the state’s inability to control crime to acceptable levels. A willingness to deliver harsh punishments to convicted offenders magically compensates a failure to deliver security to the public at large.” Windelsham similarly describes such posturing as demonstrated by David Cameron on August 8th as nothing more than “a rhetorical smokescreen”.

Lord Windelsham, in his dissection of the politics surrounding the 1993 Criminal Justice Act, points to it as a pivotal moment in the gradual and extended transfer of primary influence over criminal policy. This is not to say that the responsibility for this shift – from experts and institutions to the media and the public – lies solely with politicians, but that a degree of accommodation from key figures – such as Ken Clarke’s retreat over a number of contentious aspects of this bill – are seen as some of the earliest and most significant examples of politicians altering law and order policy in the light of sustained and strident popular pressure to do so.

From here on, Windelsham argues, “greater reliance on punishment and heightened sensitivity towards public opinion were soon to emerge as the central planks of a radically reconstructed policy towards criminal offending.” In his tenure as Home Secretary Michael Howard, was viewed by both Windelsham and Jon Silverman – the BBC’s former Home Affairs correspondent – as having been responsible for the greater politicization of law and order policy, for bringing it more into the public realm and further away from the influence of academics and institutional experts. Windelsham describes Howard as being “generally dismissive of professional expertise, including at times advice from his own officials, sensing that the general public was looking for a greater emphasis on punishment than on the rehabilitation of offenders”.

This he was more than willing to deliver and Silverman similarly identifies Howard as being a man of politics before policy, in contrast to predecessors such as Willie Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd. For Michael Howard “Everything was political. Crime was a big political issue because it resonated on the doorsteps and for him, if you made an impact on crime, you made an impact on politics.” Ascribing to Michael Howard a large share of the responsibility to prioritising public perception might be to give him undue blame (or credit). He may or may not have been the one who “fired the starting pistol which set off the penal arms race between the parties” and would ultimately lead to what academic Michael Tonry describes as “the most hyperbolic, anti-crime rhetoric of any in Europe, language that elsewhere characterizes right-wing fringe parties”. Looking back it is clear that the dash that would lead Britain to the populist, authoritarian right would have happened irrespective of whether Michael Howard’s Conservative party decided to join it. Tony Blair, as Shadow Home Secretary and subsequently as leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister is seen as just as important a protagonist.

The 1992 General Election defeat triggered a sea change in the Labour Party’s approach to law and order. Under Blair “Labour adjusted its traditional libertarian stance and style of political discourse on crime and punishment to suit the hardening political mood.” That Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” should become one of the most resonant political catchphrases of the subsequent generation is as much to do with the signal it sounded for the national popular and media approach to law and order, as it was a war cry that would lead ultimately to Downing Street. As criminal policy was becoming, for the first time, a serious electoral battleground, Blair identified the importance of avoiding being “outflanked on the right” – he might not have expected to win the battle, but it was one that it was crucial not to lose outright.

Garland is deeply critical of the politicization of law and order policy and what he describes as “the new populism”, in no small part because, where often politicization is accompanied by positional polarity, penal politics has meant a “narrowing of debate and a striking convergence of the policy proposals of all the major political parties”. Cameron, as he struck out rhetorically at the “thugs” and “criminal gangs”, promising “more arrests” and accelerated court processes, could do so with impunity. By 2011 in Britain, when it came to law and order policy, there was no such place as too far to the right and no room for a liberal perspective.

But was it the politicians, the press or the public that made it this way? The tightening of the relationship between criminal policy and the popular press is surely no coincidence. Still, it is difficult to say whether or not the politicians were attuned to and channelling the national public priorities, as reflected in the press, or whether the press was reflecting the concerns of the public at all and seeking to draw the politicians’ attention to them. Each would blame the other, with the Daily Mail’s Editor Paul Dacre admitting in 1993 that “this newspaper does seek to articulate the concern of its readers and, thereby, harden the response from the Tory administration”, while for Geoff Mulgan, an adviser to Prime Minister’s Brown and Blair, “it is a proper function of democracy that government should sometimes ignore sound evidence and follow a contrary path.”

This path was one that the Government, in response to the riots, would prove more than willing to follow as anti-intellectual catchwords such as “common sense” rode roughshod over information and expertise. Criminology has become an academic discipline that serves only itself,  with little influence on policy and political positioning. As law and order policy has become a major political battlefield, expertise and academic study has been displaced by the media as a political resource.

That little or no reference was made to academic studies of crime, or expertise in criminal behaviour does not mean that such information did not exist, or could not be commissioned, merely that the political interest in it, with regard[s] to the riots, does not. One such paper was published before the riots in 2011 and which sought to explore the – long assumed – relationship between inequality and rioting. This study ultimately found that, rather than inequality causing riots, a lesser privileged group was more likely to commit violence only if they considered themselves to be denied the opportunity to succeed, or to improve their social standing.

In November 2011 the Guardian, in conjunction with the LSE, released a study largely based on interviews with those involved in the riots. While this study must be viewed as inherently self-serving and, at least to some degree, unreliable in methodology, it at least offered an alternative reading of the riots. This naturally meant its lifespan would be limited to the news cycle, as it was immediately dismissed by the authorities while the “tough on crime” juggernaut rolled on.

By “a contrary path” Mulgan also means one driven by results and in keeping with the managerialist, market-based approach to the performing of government functions as adopted and promoted during the Thatcher years. This inevitably resulted in an outlook that prioritised short-term, small-scale victories, akin to those of the business cycle, over long-term, transformative achievements. James and Raine would agree: Instead of making policy through recognized institutions within a climate of agreement and with the support of key professional bodies, the Government sought to deliver through the medium of management. It had become less important to adopt the right policy and more important to enact that which would deliver measurable, demonstrable and immediate results.  Although the Guardian may not like it, riot arrests figures and prison sentences provide exactly that.

Conclusion

The government’s response to the riots of 2011 therefore represents a convergence of convenient forces. It is simultaneously reflective of the economic imperatives of the era, the emergence of an unsympathetic national sensibility, the displacement of expertise by managerialism and a two-decade long race between political parties to be seen in the media as the least tolerant of crime and the toughest on criminals. In such circumstances, a more liberal state could afford to do no more than a conservative one. A Labour government could afford to be no more generous or offer more compassionate solutions to these problems because they were just as complicit in the construction of a climate of punishment.

Would the response have been different had the riots happened thirty years ago? In the urban unrest that characterized the 1980s, we have evidence upon which to draw. Margaret’s Thatcher’s government also condemned the riots as “criminal”. The difference, one feels, is that the political climate of the 1980s required that the government possess at least an informed understanding of the social and economic factors that contributed to the unrest.

In 1981 the government commissioned Lord Scarman to author a comprehensive study into the causes of the Brixton Riots. The conclusion that they were not pre-planned but the spontaneous welling-up of the feelings of angry young men, most of whom were black, against what they saw as a hostile police force” demonstrates an intellectual interest and an effort at engagement. This further reveals a willingness on the part of the government to understand the underlying causes, issues and grievances behind the violence, to solve them for their own value rather than merely to prevent further outbreaks. 2011’s riots saw no such efforts at engagement and, as Solomos puts it, “a strong theme in the official response to the riots has been to see them as issueless riots”. While the body politic in the 1980s was equally outraged by the immediate effects of the riots and inclined towards the punitative response it was  at least not unwilling to listen to opposing views and entertain the analysis of expert bodies and experienced individuals and institutions.

Thirty years on from the Brixton riots, with the distance between expertise and criminal policy comfortably wide, and no political advantage to be had from reducing it, we can expect nothing more influential than the Guardian/LSE study to emerge.

The answer in 2011, which would prove populist as well as economically expedient, simultaneously satisfying the major media institutions and their audiences, was that the riots were their own cause. Rather than being a symptom of a sick culture, one which might call for a cultural remedy for which only government had the capacity to instigate, the solution lay in the communities and with the families of the rioters who had, themselves, failed Britain. Government power to punish the rioters would be maximised, responsibility to help them reduced to nil.

Just as Henry Mencken declared that “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public”, in Britain no politician has, for the past two decades, suffered electoral disapprobation for underestimating the public stomach for punitiveness. Whether the media, the politicians or a natural shift in the public priorities is most responsible for the changes that occurred in the arena of criminal policy matters little: that a transformation took place is beyond dispute and the response to the riots was therefore pre-ordained. The Prime Minister, in his first statement as well as all subsequent ones, reached strong and certain conclusions, repeatedly referencing punishment, sentencing and individual culpability. Just two days after the first wave of violence, no more information was needed than was available. The response was set in stone.

A fully referenced version of this essay is available upon request. © Nick Christian 2012 

Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin’ Rollin YEEEEAAAH

Posted in Uncategorized by nickchristian on December 8, 2008

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I’d like to open the nominations for this year’s most unlikely social phenomenon. Forget a black guy with a funny name capturing the world’s attention and eventually the American Presidency – 2008’s been all about the RickRoll.

The premise is simple: you click on a link pertaining to be, say, Margaret Thatcher Sex Tape (and don’t even try to pretend you wouldn’t), but instead of the iron lady expressing physical passions of pornographic proportions you arrive at a YouTube Video of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up. Gutted.

You’ve just been RickRoll’d.

This plague of Rick Rolls ultimately led to victory for Astley last month the MTV Europe Awards category for Best Act Ever and has also resulted in a Facebook campaign for him to have the Christmas No.1 single. Although I haven’t give a carp about the charts for about a decade, personally I think the joke’s gone on for too long and needs to end now.

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