by Ed West
Tuesday, 26
May 2020
Idea
15:00

Slowly but surely, Britain is turning into America

The Cummings saga has put this gruesome transformation on full display
by Ed West
Dominic Cummings returns home after making a statement inside 10 Downing Street yesterday. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)

There was a popular art motif in the Middle Ages called “The Three Living Meet the Three Dead”. In this tale three young people, usually aristocratic men, are out one day when they meet three decomposing corpses, one of whom tells them “We once were what you are now, what we are now, you will be.”

Cheery stuff — it dates to the 13th century but it became especially popular during and after the Black Death, when the whole dying business was on people’s minds a great deal.

I think of that tale while reading about American politics, which for many years has been a once-amusing but now just depressing form of entertainment to political junkies on this side of the Atlantic. And there was a definite staring-at-the-corpses feel over the weekend, as people gleefully sent around footage of Dominic Cummings being jeered by his neighbours as he walked home.

People disagree over whether what he did was a mortal or venial sin, but I can honestly say that if things had gone differently in December and a senior Labour MP or adviser had broken lockdown like Cummings, I would be horrified by that scene. Most conservatives would. I imagine it wouldn’t happen — indeed a Labour MP attended a funeral, an act far more irresponsible than anything Classic Dom may have done — because of the asymmetry of hatred in British politics.

In Cummings’s case people are especially angry and hateful because of his role in Brexit; I get that, but everything about the response is pushing us closer to the rotting cadaver that is American political debate. Partisans frightened to live in certain areas because they have become so tribal; institutions such as the civil service and Church being dragged into politics and so wrecking the power of social institutions; journalists losing all sense of proportion or pretence at even-handedness as the media heads towards hyper-partisanship.

I find the whole thing especially disturbing because I live not far from Cummings, in a neighbouring borough with a similar demographic profile; heavily Remain-voting, left-of-centre and filled with organic bakeries, hot yoga, independent coffee shops and all the other liberal elite status markers that conservative commentators affect to despise.

I talk about the area in my book, which is partly about being a small-c conservative in an English middle class becoming overwhelming liberal. Living in liberal areas is pleasant, as I argue, because liberals tend to be high in trust, a positive outlook that tends to blind them to the dangers of the world; indeed, paradoxically, the most international-minded people are also often very active locally.

But over the years I have come to voice my opinions less and less, and casual anti-conservatism seems to be expressed more openly and more tribally. And after the weekend’s scenes, I think I’ll be just a bit more inclined to keep my mouth shut.

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ralph bell
ralph bell
2 years ago

Its the rule of the mob and the mob are the press, we have already seen terrible consequence and injustice of the Labour MP suicide and the R Scruton, but the press have learnt nothing apart from the if they keep piling on the pressure with headline news then someone will crumble and the press will get their way. Medieval stuff, so much for progress and understanding…

Gerald gwarcuri
Gerald gwarcuri
2 years ago

The treatment of Dominic Cummings by UK progressives is at once both pathetic and alarming. As an American, it disgusts me to see the self-righteous so eager to hurl stones, based primarily on political animus. And, if UK politics are coming to resemble the chaos that is present day American politics, American popular culture is frighteningly well on its way to resembling the UK’s secular, atheistic culture, where political correctness and moral drift are seemingly the norm. Sad trends, indeed, for both countries.

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
2 years ago

Move to the country, a bit boring but polite and friendly. It strikes me those who shout loudest are often frighteningly insecure about their opinions, seeking comfort amid a tribe that agrees with them.

georgetskendall
georgetskendall
2 years ago

@ED WEST

I agree with two parts of your article.

– I deeply regret the hate that has swept through social media. Criticism of Dominic Cummings is an important part of our democratic process, but some of the vitriol is appalling. At times, I have done my little part to try to stem the tide, but of course my efforts have had no real effect
– I also agree that any breach by political leaders of any party is totally unacceptable. This includes when Tahir Ali MP attended a funeral, albeit a funeral with 15 mourners who were exercising social distancing. However, as Tahir Ali has apologised, and he is only an MP and not the chief adviser of the PM, it is hardly surprising it has not received widespread coverage

But I was disappointed your criticism was all one way. Savagery in social media is not confined to the left. Bishops have received death threats for their comments on the Cummings issue. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/… And this is not a new phenonemon. For those on the centre-left, when they read articles which imply that the problem is just abusive leftwingers, they remember with genuine grief the death of a Labour MP at the hands of an abusive rightwinger.

While you are right that we are becoming like America, you should not blame the left. It is all our fault. We are steadily becoming a country that is more divided, retreating into our political and cultural echo chambers, and too often our only engagement with the outside is to throw accusations at the outsides.

Rather, we should engage in self-reflection and criticism of our own sub-culture. There is plenty to consider. For me, it is the kind of cases you identify, where the socially liberal who pressurise into silence any who disagree. But if you look at the behavious of rightwing tabloids, this behviour is hardly confined to the left.

We need to look to the plank in the eyes of our own side of the divide, before we point at the speck in others. Otherwise, we fuel the divide and become part of the problem.

We also need to visit each others echo chambers to engage in genuine and respectful debate. This is why I am posting this comment. If unherd are kind enough to publish it, I will welcome the response of you and readers of your article.

simonclarke74
simonclarke74
2 years ago

This is a very balanced and thoughtful response, thank you

David Barnett
David Barnett
2 years ago

The criticism is justly towards the left, because the supposedly responsible leaders on the left are stoking the nastiness, and even deem in legitimate and respectable.

By contrast, the death threats etc to left figures emanating from angry cranks are universally condemned. You do not find conservative leaders stoking such nastiness.

georgetskendall
georgetskendall
2 years ago
Reply to  David Barnett

David,

I’m afraid I disagree.

There have been many statements from both the far right and the far left that have stoked hatred. Whether its Trotskyists or the English Defence League, if they spew vitriol, I do and have condemned them.

On social media the left may be more prolific in their vitriol than the right. But in tabloid newspapers, it’s the opposite, because more tabloids are rightwing. On “alternative” sites like the Canary, the left may have the edge.

In terms of the mainstream leaders of political parties at the moment, most maintain a public veneer of distancing themselves from the vitriol, but, as we have discovered in various memoirs, even while condemning it, there are politicos on all sides who will then hold private meetings to spread misleading dirt on their opponents.

(If you mean the Labour leadership of 2015-2019, I will make no apologies for it. I’ve strongly opposed it)

Unfortunately, while we’ve superb antennae that can spot the tiniest smidgen of vitriol aimed at an ally, our antennae are appallingly bad at spotting vitriol aimed at our opponents.

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
2 years ago

Why is the Church issuing edicts over political issues?
The church would do well to quell it’s activist Bishops, for if they enter the fray they too open themselves to the same treatment as other political commentators. Is that what we want?

georgetskendall
georgetskendall
2 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Clarke

Nigel,

I’m not sure I understand your response.

I am not saying that no one should be subject to criticism. Just at the government should be held to account in a democracy, so should all leaders, including bishops.

I am saying that no one should be subject to vitriol or death threats.

Do you agree?

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
2 years ago

Yes, Governments should be held to account, but is that what you saw the media doing with Cummings? I saw a desperate attempt by an angry mob of so called journalists and reporters, who are supposed to hold the government to public account, attempt to repeatedly wrestle a noose around their quarries neck in order to metaphorically hang their prey, in public, from the trellis in the Rose Garden!
That’s our media now, it just is. It has no interest in impartiality whatsoever, they’re not smart enough to separate it all out and present it impartially.

…and…

Specifically…you mention death threats to Bishops and no, of course I don’t think anyone should be subject to vitriolic attacks or threats of any kind, death or other.
Over the last few years the “liberalisation” of social media means it now explicitly exhibits extreme polarisations of opinions and ideologies. This spills out in to their real lives. And i’m afraid the vitriol is distinctly one-way, and seemingly also somehow allowable.
If you, as a tweeter, are going to take up arms in the twitter wars surrounding politics don’t be surprised to get ambushed after your own attack. Especially if you are a leading member of the clergy tweeting your thoughts on the political topic du jour.
Nevertheless, there really are some incredibly mentally disturbed twitter users.
Twitter is a cesspit and I would advise anyone to delete their account.

And in regards to Bishops opining about politics…historically I don’t think that went too well for the Bishops.

There’s an old saying…’tis sometimes better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and have it confirmed.

georgetskendall
georgetskendall
2 years ago

T Hopp,

I think you misunderstand me. I’m not talking about “turn the other cheek” (though if you like we could talk about that), but being self-aware about our own faults.

The quote about “the plank in our own eyes” is a bit hyperbolic, but there’s an important truth there. If we reflect on our own faults it is usually far more productive than if we attack someone else’s faults.

And, as we develop self-awareness in reflecting on our own faults, that will help us better understand the faults of others.

If you are suggesting that it is impossible to build bridges with someone who uses aggressive language, I agree it is difficult.

But, occasionally, aggressive language is a mask for genuine fears and hurts. And if you start to understand those, it may be possible to dial down the anger on both sides, and start a dialogue.

I wish I could say I was good at this. I’m not. But if it works, the effort is worth it.

Dave Smith
Dave Smith
2 years ago

I am lucky.I live in a rural town. People here are different. if the BBC and the liberal media go on like this then i forsee trouble ahead. This country faces danger. My neighbours are almost to a man loyal patriotic citizens. They will not take kindly to those who seem to be intent on disruption and harming our country. When you least expect it a leader arises. Who can articulate our dismay at the behaviour of our elites. Then there will be real trouble.
The progressive urban class is playing with fire. They need to hold their peace and let this country breathe and work out it’s future.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
2 years ago

Regulation d, folks: care or assistance to a vulnerable person. Try being properly informed next time.

Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
2 years ago

Accidentally outed myself as a conservative on facebook, all lefty friends that responded were polite and friendly.

The divide is not always as bad as people might think.

Gerald gwarcuri
Gerald gwarcuri
2 years ago

Indeed. The fact that simply being identified as a conservative can be described as “outing” suggests that it is somehow perverse and abnormal. How desperately pathetic the Facebook platform is. And how utterly disingenuous the claims of the Left that they just want people to be themselves and that they value diversity. Balderdash!

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
2 years ago

I condemned the Scottish health adviser and pointed out her actions showed she did not believe Covid could be spread by walking in the fresh air with one’s family. I condemned Neil Ferguson, right from the start because he looks like a lefty XR type and he had got everything wrong in the past, then he broke the rules which he had insisted on and which will bankrupt the nation. So why would I not condemn the equally hypocritical actions of Cummings, who was the champion of ‘the science’ the voice calling for lockdown, the same voice which earlier in the year had spoken in gobbledegook, nerd speak, advertising for nerds who pretend to understand gobbledegook to come and work for the Govt. to help ignorant politicians understand ‘the science’ in order to help politicians make ridiculous decisions which would have severe consequences for the nation?

What has changed recently is not that conservatives can’t speak freely among liberals ( you couldn’t even call yourself a Tory in Harrogate in Thatcher era without becoming persona non grata among your school fellows) It is that we voted for a conservative government and got the Communist Party, whose nomenklatura can hypocritically do as they like, while the rest of us must cower terrified of the power of the state. It is not America we are turning into, but Soviet Russia.

Mark Stone
Mark Stone
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Well said. To make matters worse DC then blames my misunderstanding on the press and my inability to grasp the nuances of the law. Frighteningly he even refers to a doctored blog suggesting he predicted the pandemic a few years ago – it was changed the day he returned to London. It’s as if he was planning a volume of double speak in preparation for this. Where would he draw the line? The Gulags are not far away with people like Cummings in charge of people like Boris.
I long for the principals of leaders like Maggie Thatcher.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Nonsense, do you have idea of what the Soviet Union was like?
To make such a comparison you must be deranged.
Cummings has certainly blundered, but is still within the Law( Regulation D).
You also imply he was the overriding force behind the (hysterical) Lockdown. What proof do you have of that? Surely it was a Cabinet decision?
He maybe a ‘nerd’ as you not so politely imply, but he is not Rasputin.
Calm down, normality will return, even, dare I say in Harrogate.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Cummings himself advertised for geeks and weirdos, I seem to recall, some terminology like that. Go and read his blog and remind yourself of the eugenicist he hired as a result of his advert. He seems to be highly influenced by Lyndon LaRouche and those interesting people, which is where he gets his ideas about big science projects driving the economy.

I did not say England today was identical to Soviet Russia, but that the state removal of our civil liberties and the way certain protected members of the state are allowed their own freedom while we are denied ours, is more akin to it than modern day America. Normality won’t return, not for years.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Can’t you answer the question? Your first paragraph was a totally irrelevant rant.
In the second you deliberately misinterpreted my questions or avoided them completely.
To repeat, do have any idea what the Soviet Union was like? Was DC within the Law? Is D.C. the overriding force behind this (hysterical) Lockdown? Or was it a Cabinet decision?

Simon Phillips
Simon Phillips
2 years ago

The Maitlis editorial last night is a sure sign we are moving towards America in terms of our politics. We may end up with a Fox/CNN style divide with both sides shouting about their opponents and never being seriously challenged.

Of course, whether you agree with Maitlis’ views or not, you are obliged to fund her salary under threat of going to jail if you don’t cough up. That is becoming harder to defend (and I usually tire of the often dumb BBC bashing that goes on).

roger white
roger white
2 years ago

The “Liberal” left is just a phrase with no meaning. They are not liberal in any sense – they don’t tolerate alternative views or treat with any degree of civility those with whom they don’t agree. They are authoritarian, & semi-stalinist.

Anakei greencloudnz
Anakei greencloudnz
2 years ago

This is the problem I have. I like to go to organic bakeries, farmers markets and trendy little cinemas showing foreign films. Most of my friends are teachers/professionals/local government workers who are to a man (person ) lefties and greenies. I run my own business. They are nice people and good friends.They are kind to animals, look after their elderly parents and volunteer for various charities I smile and nod when they discuss politics and inwardly roll my eyes because I don’t want to fall out with them, and occasionally play devils’ advocate but back off if the discussion looks like its getting heated. Cowardly I know but I don’t want to lose my friends of 20+ years because I don’t agree with them politically

Adam Lewitt
Adam Lewitt
2 years ago

Dear Mr West,
I can’t find a way to email you directly on the site, so I will leave a comment here. I thoroughly enjoyed your new book. I live in almost exactly the same situation, albeit in South rather than North London.

Thanks for expressing so much of what is in my head, I guess.

Kenneth Brownell
Kenneth Brownell
2 years ago

Don’t give into your inclination not to be vocal about your conservatism. I live in Hackney and even more in the epicentre of the leftish middle class in Dalston. It is sometimes awkward but for the common good people need hear views other than those like their own. And over time cultures change and the tide may turn back in our direction.

delchriscrean
delchriscrean
2 years ago

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Oliver Victorio
5 hours ago
This seems like a very considered, sensible and reasonable approach from a brilliant political scientist. The furore over it seems to be more of a hate-hate relationship between Cummings and the hardcore remain camp, still bitter over the entire Brexit win, bent at find any measure of revenge in one last swing of the sword, despite the war being decisively won. It feels more like sore loser syndrome than real news. Rather than get riled up over such issues why does the media not home its attention on the real serious source of Covid-19 – the CCP. Not only is there a possible burgeoning of a second wave, Xi Jinping is taking this opportunity, whilst the world’s attention is diverted, to introduce more draconian laws on Hong Kong. There, real despotism is for all to see. Far too much has been made of the Cummings issue than is warranted, when there are far more serious domestic and international concerns to deal with.

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My Crayons
an hour ago
Not a recreational trip. That is exactly it.

To watch the fop Peston, the malevolent Morgan P., the dismal Graun hacks and the rest of the media sc(r)um believe they finally get their well-earned anti-Brexit vindication by publicly wetting themselves with a self-righteous frenzy is glorious entertainment in itself.

Indeed, the ever-obnoxious Graun ‘newspaper’ headline “Cummings will not resign” (not verbatim) one can read as “We failed. Again”.

Lovely.

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Giulia
an hour ago
“Guilty ” seems to be overstating it, suggesting a crime has been committed. Cummings appears to have socially distanced with his family at all times so what is the problem? The problem seems to be that certain MPs of all parties are jealous of a non elected person having more influence than they have and/ or being a brexiteer. Reading the latest book by Hilary Mantel there are so many parallels between the wielding of power in the 21st century and Tudor England. But instead of being beheaded the victim gets tortured on the rack of public opinion heavily influenced by the pernicious Media.

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Auberon Linx
3 hours ago
The hysterical response to Cummings’ possibly violating the lockdown rules is most undignified. At some point, almost every article on the Guardian website front page was about this, and from a single, narrow point of view. It would be great if the recommendations above about bringing some objective standards in meting out punishment were followed, but with the current partisanship levels, that will never happen. British liberal cosmopolitans are seriously after blood this time, and who could blame them? Here is a man who has done more than most for the Leave option to win in the referendum, and then ensured Brexit actually went through by ushering a Conservative majority in the latest election. It must be said that Cummings himself is to blame: after becoming an obsession for the liberals and relishing the endless analysis of even the slightest off-handed remark that he would make, didn’t he realise that such scrutiny comes with a price? And that any misstep that he makes would be immediately pounced upon?

I can see this ending only one way as the liberal left really is masterful in getting people sacked. But they should be careful what they wish for: capable individuals scorned by the establishment tend to wreak havoc if not co-opted in the system – just look at Farage and Trump as recent examples.

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Viv Evans
2 hours ago
In fairness – Cummings left for Durham at the end of March -27th, IIRC. So to date his ‘crime’ to May 24th is factually wrong.
This is when the MSM started their ‘war’, it is not when Cummings went to Durham.
Therefore I wish journalists would ask: why now? Why this huge hullabaloo now? What are they trying to hide? There are hints; the row with the trade unions over school closures – why are the MSM not asking about Starmer’s failure to call them to task? There’s the scandal of the ‘excess unexplained deaths’ – not worth investigating, is it?
And perhaps someone might even ask why it is that all the other transgressors -e specially those in the UK, are not similarly hunted? Never mind the blatant disregard of the press pack for social distancing rules when harassing Cummings: one rule for ‘us’, one rule for the press, is it?
And would someone ask the police if they’re investigating the hate tweets against Cummings and other MPs – or is it one rule for Momentum, one rule for everybody else?
There’s much to do – and much time has been wasted even by usually good journalists who seem to feel they must be seen to be on the ‘dump cummings’ bandwagon …

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Mary May
29 minutes ago
who holds the media to account? Their behaviour in this has been shocking for its lack of basic human decency, and any who have taken part in the hounding of a person acting in the best interests of an autistic 4 year old should be ashamed of themselves.

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John Broomfield
31 minutes ago
To be considered guilty we need to see the specific rule that was broken, the evidence to support guilt beyond reasonable doubt and the exact nature of the offence.

How about spelling that out for everyone who is not gripped by their hatred for the man.

However, after his public confession he may be guilty of driving without due care and attention.

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Stephen Follows
an hour ago
Good article. It still omits the fact that the longer trip (at the very least) is covered by Regulation d, which permits travel to provide care or assistance to a vulnerable person.

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Della Crean Stephen Follows
2 minutes ago
Hold on, this is waiting to be approved by UnHerd.
I have watched in horror as social media has been flooded with hateful, vicious, almost violent comments about anything that does not fit the views of the howling classes..and there seems to be so many if them. Their reactions are fuelled by MSM that at times has been neither fair nor impartial. Political bias has run rampant. They have appealed to the most basic and base of instincts… envy and resentment. They have sought, at every turn to undermine the government, have asked questions that served as personal comments and accusations rather than genuine questions.
I have been an avid radio 4 listener for as long as I can remember, listening to John Humphrys (miss him) first thing every day since he joined the Today program. For the last few days I have tuned in with hope and then turned off.
Then today I came upon a piece that started out saying it was an attempt to explain to Americans what was happening here at the moment, then went on to make the most vile, personal, aggressive, hateful statement about Dominic Cummings that I felt soiled by having stumbled upon it. I didn’t read it all but just looked at a few comments. People were applauding it, agreeing with it, saying “well done!”
What kind of country have we become?

Russ Littler
Russ Littler
2 years ago

Here’s the real reason why the Media are going after Dominic Cummings. https://youtu.be/I5PuVVaulk8

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
2 years ago

What an odd piece!. When i saw the title I thought “yes I can see that, incoherent right-wing leadership, cronyism in public spending and contracts, an array of incompetent appointments, a focus on presentation rather than substance and a complete inability to handle a major emergency by taking expert advice and acting on it and giving the public clear guidance. But no, apparently a few people had been unkind to Dominic Cummings. This is the same Cummings who demanded Sadiq Javid’s SPAD hand over her phone to him examined it and manhandled her out of No 10. I hadn’t realised he was such a sensitive soul. Jeering the poor fellow might have been a little de trop even for someone who not only had used a regulation devised for children at risk to justify taking his wife, child and Covid19 260 miles to Durham but who also thought the best way to check your eyesight was to pile the family into the car and drive them 30 miles to see how it goes; though compared to the non-stop abuse that Diane Abbot has all the time I think he has come off lightly. When you refer to a neighbourhood of Hot Yoga, organic bakeries and people with liberal opinions I am trying to feel your pain but really I cannot. Anyway you have got what you want, Brexit, the last shreds of Constitutional decency gone, unlimited power for the next 4 years. Why so uncertain

Louise Lowry
Louise Lowry
2 years ago

Surely the similarity between Boris ‘s and Trump’s disregard for the truth has not escaped anyone, The death tolls in UK, USA, Brazil are all high as extreme right wing governments to not apparently believe in their responsibility for the health of their citizens.
I have not used the word ‘conservative’ as I remember one nation Tories like McMillan and Heath. However Cummings is an extreme right wing figure , whose espousal of herd immunity, quoted in the Sunday Times as saying ‘pensioners will die’ has led to UK’s death toll being highest in Europe and C19 becoming endemic in UK, I assume you are aware of how this government’s response to the pandemic is viewed abroad. Yes, we are becoming more like Trump’s USA.

andy9
andy9
2 years ago

I struggle to understand the perspective of this article and some of the comments. I would suggest that for many, probably most people the reaction was not motivated by anti-conservatism but as a response to the open display of double standards and acting outside the spirit, if not the fine print, of government regulations and laws.

At that point in the pandemic response the government had asked the country to make a considerable sacrifice of their freedom, not see friends, relatives, loved ones outside their household, avoid travel, self isolate for 7 or 14 days if showing symptoms etc. In the extreme, some people were even unable to see dying relatives or attend the funerals of loved ones. But the rules were clear and by and large the country had followed them.

To then have such a senior figure in the government and its coronavirus response, who played a part in the setting of those rules and response, who should be fully aware of the demands being made on the public, appear to disregard and break them, certainly in spirit if not in the legal fine print, shows a disregard for the efforts and sacrifices being made by everyone else to follow them.

It’s little different to the response to the Scottish medical officer or Neil Ferguson. People simply demand that those exercising leadership and setting the rules which are imposed on others practice what they preach.

Peter KE
Peter KE
2 years ago

The liberal left is a misnomer and they are really no different to Stalinist or the chinese prc. Boris and Trump are the true liberals and need all of our support including DC.

Jerry W
Jerry W
2 years ago

The divide is not just between left and right but also between London – the only English region that voted remain – and the rest of the country.
In my village most inhabitants would have no clue how their neighbours voted and wouldn’t dream of asking.

Bill Gaffney
Bill Gaffney
2 years ago

Well…you could be turning into France. If America is so bad, I am astonished that so many are still trying to enter.