From David Maughan Brown in York: Happy Birthday to the NHS

July 4th

Happy Birthday to the NHS on its 72nd birthday.   As everyone in UK who has made it to the Biblical cut-off age of three score years and ten knows only too well by now, 72 is a dangerous age in the Covid-19 era.   In this strange new world, people attain instant vulnerability on the day they turn 70.  In that respect people are actually rather luckier than the NHS, which becomes instantly vulnerable every time a Conservative government comes to power.  Right now, after a decade of Tory misrule, the NHS is more vulnerable than it has ever been, as the present pandemic has made all too obvious. 

So Boris, in his kindly way, has given the NHS an unforgettable birthday present, gift-wrapped, virtually if not literally, in the blue light that will bathe key buildings around the country in its honour this evening, and presented to the NHS to echoes of the applause that rang out around the country on Thursday evenings not so long ago. Boris’s present is to honour the NHS’s birthday by declaring it ‘Independence Day’ and encouraging us all to get out to celebrate it in the pubs which were opened in its honour today for the first time in three months.   Boris has suggested that we might want to ‘act responsibly’ in doing so, and has set the example when it comes to acting responsibly by boasting about going around shaking the hands of Covid-19 patients in hospitals, and regarding it as entirely reasonable for his chief advisor to go for thirty mile drives to test his eyesight.

So the NHS will be partying tonight to celebrate its birthday, with extra staff invited to come in to join the party.  The Independent reports that ‘all NHS trusts have been warned to expect levels of attendance usually seen during new year celebrations, and have been asked to prepare their A&E departments and free up bed capacity in their hospitals to manage the increase.’  A&E staff must be really bored by now with trying to save the lives of Covid-19 patients, so they are bound to welcome an influx of drunk and injured people, many with alcohol poisoning, instead.  Some of the drunks will be violent and abusive instead of singing Happy Birthday, as they always are, but that will give the police who always have to hang around A&E departments a good reason not to get themselves injured trying to break up the celebratory riots out in the streets.   Boris could, of course, have scheduled the opening of the pubs for a more boring mid-week evening, but that would have limited the opportunities for his compulsively grandiloquent rhetoric and for the close association of post-Brexit England’s ‘Independence Day’ with the USA’s Independence Day, and he would thereby have lost an opportunity to ally himself with his insane counterpart in the USA.

Dealing with drunks who might try to tear off their face masks will obviously heighten the vulnerability of NHS staff, so many of whom have died unnecessarily from Covid-19 already, but the vulnerability of the NHS goes far deeper than the immediate safety of its current staff.   Tory Party ideology fetishises the private sector and abjures large national organisations: privatisation offers more opportunity for private profit, profiteering, graft and corruption.   Adherents of the ideology maintain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that it leads to greater efficiency and promotes productivity.  One only has to look at our railways and the UK probation service to see the absurdity of that idea.   The NHS was progressively, and I suspect deliberately, starved of the funds it needed to maintain the quality of its service for a steadily ageing population through the years of austerity, as seen, to take just one example, from the woeful shortage of PPE equipment and ventilators when a long-predicted virus struck.  The drying up of adequate funding enabled bits of the NHS to be carved off and handed to the private sector, as will have been intended. 

The government’s ideological mind-set blinded it to the need to look to local authorities and GPs in establishing an efficient track and trace system rather than relying on privatised central laboratories, with the result that England’s failure, even now on ‘Independence Day’, to have an efficient system in place has made us the subject variously of international pity and scorn.   But, in spite of all this, this government has shown itself to be incapable of learning from its manifest mistakes.  They are still careering towards a no-deal Brexit whose symbolic success depends to their blinkered minds on a trade-deal with the USA.  This government knows, and doesn’t care, that what the USA wants most out of a trade deal with the UK is for us to be carving nicely chlorinated roast chicken on our Sunday dinner tables, and for our government to reciprocate by carving our NHS up for them and handing the potentially profitable parts to Donald Trump on a plate.   Happy Birthday, NHS, I hope it won’t be your last.

From David Maughan Brown in York: of activists, artists and Human Rights

July 2nd

The selection process for York University’s Centre for Applied Human Rights ‘arctivist’ grants, which I wrote about on April 25th and May 13th,  has finally come to an end.  The intention has been to bring activists and artists together to produce a combined response to the Human Rights situation in their countries in the context of Covid-19, with a maximum grant of £3000.   Having had to call a halt to the flood of bids a fortnight ago, as we were running out of funding for the grants, we held our eighth and final Zoom selection-meeting this morning at which we discussed the last 43 bids.   When I volunteered to join the panel I thought we would be doing well if we attracted 100 bids.  In the event, the committee reviewed a total of 234 bids, and that was after an initial sifting by the inundated staff at the Centre who had eliminated a further 250 or so of the weaker bids before they got to us.  While the critical mass of the bids initially came from Africa, by the end of the process the spread was far more evenly global, with a slight preponderance from Latin America.  So the six bids I short-listed before today’s meeting came from India, El Salvador, Estonia, the Philippines, Chile and Ecuador.  The various artistic products their authors were intending to produce included a radio play, a puppet theatre, a photographic exhibition, a city-centre installation, a series of podcasts, and the production of a series of politically loaded Covid-19 face-masks.

As I suggested in my earlier posts, going through these bids constituted a very welcome and illuminating metaphorical liberation from the narrow geographical constraints of York in lockdown The overwhelming impression left by the 234 bids as a whole was, improbably enough, in equal parts depressing and encouraging.  It was depressing in the way it demonstrated the extent to which brutal and corrupt governments and police forces around the world have used Covid-19 as an excuse to tighten the screws of their oppression of the people in whose cause they are supposed to be governing.  So, to take just a few examples from the bids,  from India: ‘the State has used the Covid-19 crisis as a cover to crack down on protesters and to enforce silence’; from the Philippines:  using Covid as the excuse ‘the government is tightening its grip on our freedoms… injustices, human rights violations and repression of free press, free speech and free expression are at an all-time high’; from Kenya: ‘From the onset of the Covid-19 regulations, the National Police Service has been used by the government to limit movement and suppress public dissent: arresting, extorting, harassing, forcefully disappearing and killing residents.’   Reading through the bids has, at the same time, been encouraging in that it has demonstrated enormous reserves of resilience and creativity among the artists and activists who have come together to produce the bids, and has, via the links to the artists’ music and art, demonstrated the extent of the global pool of talent that is available and willing to be put to use in the cause of justice and Human Rights.

At a rather different level, this process has left me feeling grateful that I live in a country that, on the whole, has rather more respect for human rights than most of the other countries from which those 234 bids have come.  We may live in a country with a metaphorically world-beating government when it comes to stupidity and duplicity where critical issues like Brexit are concerned, and a literally world-beating incompetence when it comes to Covid-19 deaths per head of population, but, to take just one indicator, nobody in the UK has been beaten to death by the police for contravening lockdown regulations.   However, we have no cause whatever for complacency on the Human Rights front, as has been so amply demonstrated in recent years by the Empire Windrush scandal. To take just one specific example of this country’s human rights abuses, David Davis, a renegade Tory ex-cabinet Minister, pointed out in parliament yesterday that the UK is the only country in Europe without any limit on the length of time immigrants can be held in detention in UK immigration centres. One detainee, he said, had been held in detention for a total of 1,002 days by the end of last year.   That is not a distinction to be proud of.   Nor is this a case of an absent-minded overlooking of a gap in our human rights legislation:  Davis’s proposed amendment to yesterday’s Immigration Bill, which would have seen a maximum period of 28 days introduced to restrict the indefinite detention of immigrants, was defeated by 80 votes.   That bodes very ill indeed for human rights in UK for the next four and a half years of unaccountable Tory government. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The right deed for the wrong reason’

28th June

So bumptious Boris is back to his bounciest and most boisterous best, particularly at performing U-turns.   Overdoing the alliteration seems an appropriate way to pay deference to a man whose rhetoric overdoes everything, most of the time including the truth.   Suitably socially-distanced Boris watchers (health warning: only for those with their blood-pressure medication close to hand) might well be asking themselves whether Boris’s very obvious disorientation is the result of his making himself dizzy with so many U-turns in such a short time, or whether the U-turns are the result of his having no idea where he was going in the first place and simply being comprehensively lost.   Those of us who are old enough to remember what my grandchildren would regard as ‘the olden days’ before sat-navs were invented will probably remember the latter feeling, although we were fortunate enough not to have a visually-impaired Dominic Cummings in the back seat telling us where to go.  Watching Boris’s blunderings and speculating about their origins may not be a particularly productive or spiritually fulfilling way of spending one’s time in lockdown, but it can become compulsive.

The list of U-turns is impressive, indeed, dare I say it, potentially ‘world-beating’: vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays; binning our ‘world-beating’ tracking and tracing app.; relenting on all primary school children being back in school before the summer holidays; reversing the decisions on the NHS surcharge and the bereavement scheme; remote voting in the House of Commons; and the imposition of the blanket quarantine.  And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.  Those are, however, just details: the Grand-daddy of them all, which Boris has been ‘doubling down’ on again today, is the gargantuan Tory U-turn on ‘austerity’.   The other U-turns, which have to do to what are essentially mere details, were forced on an unthinking government, both congenitally and ideologically averse to consultation with anybody, least of all unions and local councils, by public pressure. This one, which involves borrowing at historically low interest-rates in order to spend our way out of recession and mass unemployment by investing in infrastructure, “Building, building, building”, suggests that there is, after all, a glimmer of intelligence, a flickering candle, somewhere in the pea-soup fog of collective Tory intelligence.

As the Keynesian economists they obdurately refused to listen to have been telling them for the last decade, that is what they should have been doing ever since the recession in 2008.  If they had gone down that road, they could have avoided the untold misery, anxiety, poverty and cultural impoverishment their ideological obsession with shrinking the state has occasioned:  the closing of youth and child services; the forcing of tens of thousands into the humiliation of having to rely on food-banks; the closing of municipal libraries; the strangling of the justice system; the denial of adequate funding to the NHS, which occasioned the lack of PPE and caused how many deaths?  The list goes on and on and on.  And, even in deciding on the U-turn, Boris still can’t bring himself to be entirely honest:  “We are absolutely not going back to the austerity of 10 years ago,” he told the Sunday Times today.  ‘The austerity of the last 10 years’, to which he gave every evidence of being wholly committed, would have been more honest.

Now, with his invariably tone-deaf timing, bouncy Boris declares his commitment to ‘Building, building, building’ at the precise moment his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is coming under increasing pressure for overruling Tower Hamlet officials, who apparently begged him not to give a last-minute go-ahead to Richard Desmond’s application to get ‘building, building, building’ a one billion pound housing development, involving 1500 houses, in an already overcrowded part of Tower Hamlets in London.  Having sat next to Desmond at a dinner, and allegedly watched a promotional video for the development, Jenrick is alleged to have overruled planning objections the day before Desmond would have been obliged to pay £45 million in extra developer’s contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council.  Desmond subsequently sent Jenrick a message thanking him for his speedy response and for saving him from having to pay ‘loads of doe (sic)’ to ‘the Marxists’.  It will, of course, have been entirely coincidental that Desmond then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.  But a mere twelve grand is peanuts in the grand scale of things:  the Independent reported yesterday that the Tories have received a total of £11 million in donations from building magnates in the six months since Boris became prime minister.   Who, any longer, wonders why?

T.S. Eliot has Becket say in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’  In clinging on desperately to avoid losing Dominic Cummings, Boris was very clearly doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason: he is wholly dependent on Cummings to run the country for us.  In regarding the Jenrick matter as ‘closed’ (according to Priti Patel, who would know) he is laying himself open to the very strong imputation that his commitment to “building, building, building” is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  Infrastructure projects, as anyone who has ever managed them knows full well, leave all sorts of opportunities for corruption and sleaze.   

In his bouncily boyish way, Boris has been trying to demonstrate to the world that he is back to his best, but perhaps only managing to give the impression that he is, in P.G. Woodhouse terminology, a bounder.  Today he has told us that he is ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and we’ve been regaled with unedifying footage of his backside as he did press-ups for the benefit of the Mail on Sunday to prove it.  While many of us would be only too pleased to see his back, I don’t imagine that too many people want to be shown his backside as an accompaniment to Sunday dinner.   Boris may well be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’, although how many press-ups he managed wasn’t mentioned.  Some of the women who know him best may, for all we know, also consider him to be as randy as a butcher’s dog and to have the moral compass of a butcher’s dog.  His apparent inability to see anything whatever wrong with Cummings’ and Jenrick’s behaviour might suggest to some people that he also has the ethics of a butcher’s dog.  But, however fit he may or may not be, best not to enter him in the butcher’s dog category at Crufts (‘The World’s Greatest Dog-show’) until someone has, at the very least, groomed him.   There are times when I get the impression that Crufts isn’t even in the same league when it comes to the world’s greatest dog-show.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’

June 26th

Today is what we used, during the apartheid years, to refer to as South Africa Freedom Day:  commemorating the signing of the Freedom Charter at a conference organised by the Congress of Democrats attended by 3,000 people in Kliptown, outside Johannesburg.   The name has subsequently, entirely understandably, been transferred to April 27th to commemorate the longed-for day in 1994 when South Africa experienced its first post-apartheid (and first genuine) general election.   Today also happens to be my second son, Brendan’s, birthday, which is being celebrated without us this year in Cape Town.  One son born on Soweto Day, the other born on South Africa Freedom Day, there had to be a message there somewhere.

This year Brendan was very unexpectedly presented with a birthday present by Chelsea Football Club.   He has been a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC from a very early age, in so far as it is possible to ‘support’ a football club from a distance of 6000 miles, and woke this morning to the news that, after 30 years of waiting, Liverpool had finally won the English Premiership title again, courtesy of Chelsea winning a match against Manchester City.   He would have had the good sense not to join the Liverpool fans’ ecstatic, Covid-defying revelry last night, had he been there, but he will have been just as ecstatic.

The restart of the locked-down football season this week has made me aware of just how much I missed watching football in the scheduled run-up to the climax of the season.   This is a statement my sons would identify with entirely, and my daughters-in-law would find completely incomprehensible.   I have to confess that I was unashamedly delighted by this outcome too, and not just out of empathy for my Liverpool-supporting sons, son-in-law, and grandson.  Why confess?  Because – and, safely buried this far into a blog, I can probably get away with saying it – I have been a Manchester United supporter ever since the Munich air disaster in 1957.  Manchester United supporters would generally rather see anyone in the entire universe win anything that their own club can’t win, just as long as it isn’t Liverpool.

My loyalty, then, is a bit fickle.  What I really enjoy is watching ‘the beautiful game’  played at its most beautiful, and, at football’s best, that term isn’t as absurd as it might sound to non-believers.   The speed, the athleticism, the ball-control and the intricate inter-passing; the vision to be able to pick a fifty-yard pass and execute it perfectly; the ability to dribble a ball through a crowd of opponents; the bravery and gymnastic ability of the best goal-keepers – what is not to admire?   When football is played by an outstanding team, with all the players playing at the top of their form, it can be mesmerising.  Liverpool’s 2020 team has it all, and they have a brilliantly charismatic and likeable manager in Jurgen Klopp, who is also an outstanding football tactician, to bring it all together.  Klopp’s team are leading the highly competitive Premier League by a truly astonishing 23 points with a handful of matches remaining; by way of comparison, for those who aren’t followers of the game, Manchester City won last year with a record total but a margin of only a single point over Liverpool.  So, yes, Liverpool fully deserved to win, and I’m delighted it happened for Brendan’s birthday.

Being an inveterately political animal, as anyone reading these blogs will have discovered long ago, my sympathies, if not my full-hearted support when they play Man U, have been with Liverpool FC ever since Hillsborough.   Sport can elicit a wide variety of emotions, but none I have experienced have ever come anywhere near the emotion elicited by standing in a packed crowd at Anfield singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” while supporters at the Kop end (named after the battle of Spion Kop in the Anglo-Boer war) held banners aloft commemorating the 96 fans who were crushed to death at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield in 1989.  I cannot believe that even the most partisan Manchester United supporter could have failed to feel sympathy for the families and friends of those 96 fans in the face of the police lies and cover-up of their responsibility for the disaster, the unspeakably contemptible coverage of the event by the execrable Sun, and the British establishment’s preparedness, all the way up to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to believe the story that responsibility for the disaster lay with drunken Liverpool fans.  Almost 30 years of dogged determination on the part of the Liverpool fans to see the truth eventually acknowledged, if justice by no means done, was wholly admirable and very nearly enough, in itself, to demand a shift of allegiance.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A Cunning Plan

June 25th

Anyone with nothing better to do in lockdown than browse the Gov.UK website will find truncated biographies of the members of the current UK cabinet listed under ‘Ministers’.  No length of lockdown could possibly end up being boring enough to induce me to do something so self-lacerating without some good reason.  In this instance I was interested in finding out precisely which Higher Education establishments we can hold responsible.  Unsurprisingly, it turns out that almost 50% of them went to either Oxford or Cambridge, while a further 20% or thereabouts went to one of the other Russell Group universities.  Interestingly, many of those who didn’t illuminate the rarefied cloisters of those supposedly ‘top’ universities appear to be sufficiently ashamed of the fact to avoid any mention at all of their education in their potted biographies.  Although recent political developments in both England and USA raise serious questions about universal ‘education’ in general, and precisely what steadily expanding Higher Education is supposed to have done for national analytical capability, in particular, our cabinet cannot all be as stupid, or even as incompetent, as they seem.  There has to be a cunning plan.  If lockdown allows time to read Ministerial biographies, it must also allow time for speculation.

It was obvious from their reactions that the leaders of the Leave campaign, Johnson and Farage in particular, did not expect to win the referendum in 2016, in spite of the populist lies their Little Englander campaign was built on. Johnson and company also knew by mid-2019 that the majority of the electorate did not support Brexit, in fact never had, and successfully managed to evade the dreaded second referendum.  The government’s own advisers were indicating that any form of Brexit was going to be economically damaging, and the much-derided independent ‘experts’ were almost all saying the same.  This meant that the puppeteers in the cabinet knew they would not be able to blame a credible cohort of specialist economists for the financial fall-out from Brexit, in the way they are all too obviously going to try to evade responsibility for the deadly fall-out from Covid-19 by bleating over and over again that they were just ‘following the science’.  

Who, then, is there to blame?  The obvious answer is the EU.  But that only really works provided you don’t enter into serious negotiations or accept any compromises.  The EU has to be so blameworthy that you are morally obliged to walk away from the table without any deal.   So you have to reject any extension of the transition period, and you know that Dominic Cummings can be relied on to invent a narrative that will sound plausible to your core support.   You need to do this by January 1st 2021 because the Covid-19 virus, bless it, has ensured that, no matter how much additional economic damage a no-deal Brexit will result in in the long term, 2021 can only be better for the economy than 2020.  If you delay departure for an extra year while you pretend to negotiate a deal, the specific damage occasioned by Brexit, as distinct from Covid-19, might become too obvious.

In the meantime the cunning plan will work even better if 2020 can be made even more memorably awful.  People have short memories and by the time, in our version of democracy, they get to vote again four and a half years hence, they will have forgotten just how much responsibility you bear for the awfulness.   So impose a two-week quarantine on people coming into the UK from less infected countries to put extreme financial pressure on airlines, and ensure tens of thousands of redundancies, just before you agree to institute air “corridors” or “bridges” which might have helped to avoid such redundancies.   Watch news coverage of shop managers, restaurant and pub owners, and numerous others spending tens of thousands of pounds and hours of work preparing their premises to open in July on the assumption that two-metre social distancing will be compulsory, and then make them do it all again by changing your mind at the last minute, against scientific advice, and saying that one metre will be fine after all.  Make sure you avoid consulting with leaders in the different sectors, and especially with the unions, before taking decisions in crucial areas, such as sending children back to school, before you change your mind about that too.   It is all grist to the mill of making 2020 so bad that even a no deal Brexit has to seem like an improvement.

Alas, however, most conspiracy theories have a fatal flaw.  This cunning plan requires January 1st 2021, the Brexiteers true ‘Independence Day’, to mark the beginning of the post-Covid post-EU era, and depends on its authors betting the house on there not being a second spike of the virus.    If that is what the whole devilishly clever wheeze depends on, you don’t release lockdown too early, against the advice of your scientific advisers, and you don’t allow your Prime Minister’s compulsively bombastic self-display to extend to a grossly premature declaration of  a subsidiary lockdown-release ‘Independence Day’ on July 4th which encourages tens of thousands of people to flock to unsocially-distanced beaches and street parties.  Perhaps there was no cunning plan after all; perhaps they really are as comprehensively clueless as they seem.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A time to break down, and a time to build up’

June 24th

From time to time throughout my adult life I have found the words of Pete Seeger’s 1962 song ‘Turn, turn, turn’ running through my mind.   The vast majority of those words aren’t, of course, Pete Seeger’s: but for the repeated ‘Turn, turn, turn’, and ‘I swear it’s not too late’, they are all taken directly, if in a different order, from the evocatively poetic King James Version of the Bible.  Over the last week or two the phrase that has kept coming to mind has been ‘a time to break down, and a time to built up’, bearing in mind that ‘break down’ fits the song’s rhythm a whole lot better than ‘dismantle’ would.

‘Dismantling’ lodged in my mind two weeks ago when the Minneapolis Council announced its startlingly radical, but clearly long overdue, response to the murder of George Floyd.  The Council President, Lisa Bender, told CNN that a majority of members of the Council had ‘committed to dismantling policing as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe.’  She followed this up by indicating that the Council was looking to shift funding towards community-based strategies.   A two-minute internet search reveals that the Minneapolis Police Department, which initially described George Floyd’s death as a ‘medical incident’, has a long and very ugly record of police brutality.

Monday’s very extensive media coverage of the Reading park murders showed what a good day it was, if not exactly ‘to bury bad news’, certainly to distract attention from embarrassing anniversaries.  Monday was the 72ndanniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks.  Given the scandal surrounding the treatment of many of those who arrived on the Empire Windrush, it won’t be remotely coincidental that the ‘Empire’ part of the ship’s name tends to be omitted in references to it a country that still, apparently entirely without embarrassment, attaches the ‘British Empire’ moniker to the various Medals, Members, Officers and Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire that make up the major part of its Honours awards. 

On Monday evening the Channel 4 News resisted the distraction offered by the events in Reading to the extent of carrying a four-minute piece on the family of Ann-Mari Madden, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush, and her four children.  Mrs Madden is a British citizen, as are her four children, but their lives have been blighted by our Home Office’s twenty-year long refusal, in spite of every last shred of evidence the family could offer over all those years, to recognise that fact on the grounds that they didn’t have passports to prove their citizenship.   As if the stress of losing friends and career opportunities was not enough, one of the children was threatened with arrest and deportation before they were finally able to take their case to the Windrush Task Force. The Task Force managed in 24 days to achieve what the Home Office had clearly spent 20 years successfully endeavouring not to achieve.  The Madden family have submitted a claim for compensation but seem likely to have to wait another 20 years to see any.  The Home Office has so far managed to process a total of 60 claims and distributed about £1 million out of the estimated £300-500 million it is estimated it will in the end have to pay out.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, Queen of the Hostile Environment, has refused to apologise for the foot-dragging reimbursements, excusing the delay on the grounds that the Home Office is handling them in a ‘sensitive way’.   ‘Home Office’ and ‘sensitive’ go together about as comfortably as ‘Minneapolis Police Department ‘ and ‘gentle’ would.   Which brings me back to ‘dismantling’.   The viciously vindictive manner in which the Madden family, like so many others, has been treated over the past decades is strongly reminiscent of the very worst aspects of the Department of the Interior in South Africa under apartheid.  It is, quite simply, inconceivable that the Maddens would have been treated so appallingly for that length of time had they not been black.  In May 2006, the then Home Secretary, John Reid, declared of the Home Office that: ‘Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.’  The Home Office has had 14 years since then to get its act together, the hostile environment is still all too obviously still with us, and now it would seem that the only solution is to dismantle it.  If the Minneapolis Police Department can be dismantled, so can the Home Office.  It is ‘a time to build up’ something very different in its place.   Whatever takes its place should not be led by someone whose sole qualification for the job (apart from having been fired from a less senior one previously, which Boris would obviously identify with) is that she was either blinkered enough to think that Brexit was a good idea or duplicitous enough to pretend to think so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Proportionality.

June 23rd

Three men sitting with their friends enjoying the sunshine on a summer afternoon in Reading last Saturday are suddenly attacked without warning by a man they don’t know, and brutally, and with ruthless efficiency, stabbed to death.  Three of their friends are also stabbed, but their injuries are relatively minor.  It soon becomes apparent that their attacker, who is quickly arrested, is a mentally disturbed asylum seeker from Libya, Khairi Saadallah, who is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his involvement in the Libyan civil war.  The identities of the three dead men are released one by one; moving tributes are paid to them by parents and friends, who express their shock and loss; the pupils of James Furlong, by all accounts an inspirational local history teacher, gather to pay their tearful tributes.   Boris Johnson tweets a formulaic statement to the effect that his ‘thoughts are with all those affected by the appalling incident in Reading’; Priti Patel calls the attack ‘senseless’ and elaborates on her boss by adding her heart and prayers to her thoughts which are ‘with all those affected’; the media are full of photographs of people laying bunches of flowers as tributes.   The attack is appalling, the grief of those who knew the men heartfelt and touching.

The sigh of relief that will have gone round Downing Street and the editorial offices and newsrooms of our predominantly right wing media must have been audible across London.  Here, at last, they were back on familiar non-Covid territory:  terrorist attacks, knife-crime, asylum seekers, Muslims, white victims, grief-stricken parents and friends.  After weeks of increasing discomfort as they watched the government they had supported into power demonstrating an embarrassing level of blundering incompetence in its handling of a killer pandemic, they were able to beat the Law and Order drum to their hearts content and, in the process, turn their collective back on the Covid-19 fall out.

I suspect I am not alone in detecting a certain disproportionality in what has been going on here.  A couple of weeks ago Professor Neil Ferguson, whose statistical analysis was instrumental in persuading our Government to institute the lockdown in the first place, said that the belated imposition of that lockdown will have resulted in some 20,000 unnecessary deaths.   A government that, supposedly, religiously ‘follows the science’ needs to take such statements seriously, even if a number of senior scientists have been sufficiently sceptical of their claim to feel the need to set up their own parallel, but independent, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.   That means that in recent weeks roughly seven thousand times as much grief, anguish and loss can be laid at the door of our incompetent government as can be laid at the door of Khairi Saadallah’s murderous killing spree.  Those 20,000 deaths will have been painful, lingering and desperately lonely; the grief of parents, partners and children will have been just as devastating; uncountably more lives have been irreparably disfigured and futures blighted.   The media could obviously never lavish as much attention on those twenty thousand lost lives as it has been able to lavish on the tragic deaths of the three men murdered in the park in Reading on Saturday, and culpability for the 20,000 deaths will never be as easily provable, but we should bear all those other deaths in mind, even as we are appalled by what happened in Reading on Saturday.

From David Maughan Brown in York: In praise of the NHS

June 20th

Having rigorously shielded myself from the Covid-19 virus for three months,  adhering scrupulously to all government regulations about self-isolating and social distancing – give or take the ambiguity about whether or not it counted as two forms of exercise to ride a bike to the allotment – and having only darkened one set of doors, those of the cycle shop, other than our own in all that time, I found myself venturing not once but twice this week into the York Hospital, the one place in North Yorkshire I was most likely to encounter the virus.

The risk analysis didn’t involve the amount of time the above introduction might seem to imply.  Not a whole lot more, in fact, than it took to make the choice some ten years ago when my brilliant surgeon at the same hospital spelt out my choice prior to an entirely unrelated emergency operation:  “Look at it this way, if I don’t operate, you have an 85% chance of not being alive in 24 hours; if I do operate, your chances of not being alive tomorrow evening go down to about 15%.”  Not a difficult choice, and not a fragment of dialogue one is likely to forget in a hurry.   The occasion for my visits this time was my body’s decision last weekend to take it upon itself, fortunately very fleetingly, to let my brain know that it didn’t think the latter was paying it nearly enough attention, getting its message across by way of a first unwritten warning.  Direct and to the point like the surgeon, it momentarily cut off my brain’s blood supply, in a way vaguely reminiscent of the way our housemaster used to flick the dormitory light-switch off and on again to alert us to the fact that we needed to put books away before the lights went out.   I blame various combinations of Boris and Priti with the odd, very odd, Dominic or two thrown in for good measure.  Considering a visit to A&E a risk too far, and phoning 111 a waste of time, I followed the (wise) advice I would have been given 50 years ago: I took an aspirin and went to bed, deciding to phone the GPs’ surgery in the morning.

Over the course of a total of around six hours across two days, with abundant directions from random, but invariably helpful, hospital staff, I managed to find my way variously to the stroke clinic, the phlebotomy department, the X-ray department for ultra-sound and the diagnostic imaging department – all widely distributed along numerous intersecting corridors.  As I made my way around the hospital, dutifully wearing the face-covering my wife, Sue, had manufactured for me, I made a point of looking at the names on the doors I went past and listening to the accents of the people I spoke to and overheard:  German names, French names, South Asian names, Chinese names, and a variety of other East European names whose origins I couldn’t identify as well as British names. Unsurprisingly, I heard a similar range of accents from the nurses, cleaners and porters I encountered on my way.  

There was a three-hour interval on Friday afternoon after my 40 minutes in the MRI/MRA sardine scan before the specialist could see me, while she waited for the images to come through to the stroke clinic and the vascular surgeon to come out of an operating theatre to peruse them.  My iPhone was almost out of battery and I hadn’t taken anything to read, so I had three hours to sit in the waiting room, focus on what was going on around me and contemplate existence. It didn’t take much contemplation to arrive at the conclusion, yet again, that we are unbelievably lucky in UK to have the NHS, whose 72nd anniversary comes around in a fortnight.  Wherever I went in the hospital I encountered warmth and friendliness, and a high degree of competence and efficiency.   I had absolute confidence in the skill of the doctors I encountered, which is by no means automatically the case, and, having paid R11,000 for an MRI in Cape Town in November, it didn’t pass unnoticed that nobody asked me for a penny.   I was relieved at the end of the day when the conclusion was reached that the hiccup in the blood supply could be dealt with medicinally rather than needing surgery, but after my previous experience I would have had perfect confidence that, whoever at that hospital was wielding it, the scalpel would be in good hands.

Although the waiting room of a stroke clinic would no doubt be as good a place as any, and better than most, to have one, as I sat there I had very deliberately to avoid thinking too much about our current government in relation to the NHS.  For all their deceitful claims to the contrary, many of them would like nothing more than to see the NHS broken up and privatised so that they could profit from shareholdings and use our health services as a bargaining chip in their attempt to get their yearned-for trade deal with the US.  Many of them would also like nothing better than to see that rainbow collection of foreign names on the doors, to borrow Desmond Tutu’s analogy, replaced with Smiths and Browns, and all the intriguing and varied accents replaced with standard English ones.   Anyone who ever needed proof of this government’s utterly cynical attitude towards the NHS has only to look at its criminally long-delayed, and still largely useless, Test and Trace programme.  Having painstaking avoided utilising the NHS’s network of GP practices and our local Councils’ Public Health departments, which stood a good chance of success, in favour of its perennial, ideologically driven, commitment to shrink-the-State outsourcing, our government has the bare-faced cheek to duck its responsibility by labelling its dog’s breakfast of a programme with the NHS badge: ‘NHS Test and Trace.’  But best not spend too much time getting enraged by that, lest the senior housemaster in the sky switch the lights off without further warning. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive

Cecil Rhodes from Punch 1892 (wikicommons)The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.

June 18th Scientists the world over are using their analytic skills to discover more about Covid-19 every day, but they appear not, as yet, to have come to any conclusions as to why the virus, or perhaps the resulting lockdown measures, appear to be having a seriously detrimental effect on the intelligence of prominent ‘leaders’ in our society, even when they don’t show other symptoms.  The last couple of days have evidenced so highly-charged a competition to see who can make the most offensively tone-deaf statements about the ongoing manifestations of the Black Lives Matter protests that one could be forgiven for thinking that one had inadvertently dropped in on the preliminary rounds of a national Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive competition.   Boris Johnson’s scintillating record in the field would obviously have guaranteed him a pass directly into the final.

On the off chance that anyone can begin to compete with Boris when the competition gets to that final, my bets are currently on Dominic Raab to come third, and the light horse in the field, Louise Richardson, the current – for how long one wonders – Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, to come second.

Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary until such time as the Tory party changes the designation because ‘Foreign’ is such a dirty word, has just been gifted the Department for International Development by Boris because ‘International’ and ‘Development’ are also dirty words, and our English Nationalist Cabinet apparently thinks charity should begin at home.  Other people might think it is ‘Dominic’ that is the dirty word.   Anyone but Boris might even think that a degree of racial sensitivity could be a good idea in a Foreign Secretary, even when his role must be assumed now to include doing away with foreign aid.  But Raab’s latest entry in the competition involves suggesting that the Black Lives Matter symbolism of  ‘taking the knee’ derives from ‘Game of Thrones’ and asserting that he would only do it for the Queen (having once done it for his wife).   That level of crassness does, of course, equip him very well to lead a Little Englander drive to limit International Development. A drive that is so unutterably stupid in its long term implications as to rival the Tories’ parallel obsession with Brexit.   The only way to stem the tide of people flowing towards Europe from Asia and Africa, whether fleeing wars and oppression or driven by climate change, is somehow to make staying in their own countries a better option than trying to get to Europe.   Cutting the funding for foreign aid and international development is a very peculiar thing to do for people in Europe who dislike foreigners and are paranoid about immigration. 

Professor Louise Richardson’s entry for the competition this week was by way of invoking the name of Nelson Mandela as an ally in her argument that the Rhodes statue high above the entrance to Oriel College should not ‘Fall’.  This was in spite of the fact that, after four years of resistance, the governing body of the College has finally voted to remove it.  The Independent carried a report today to the effect that Professor Richards was arguing that Rhodes was a man of ‘great nuance’ and that Mandela had recognised “that we have to acknowledge our past but focus on the future,” and said that hiding history was not the “route to enlightenment”.   Museums, as Professor Richardson obviously knows full well, are buildings which exist for the purpose of ‘storing and exhibiting objects of scientific, cultural and historical interest’, as the OED puts it.   Far from ‘hiding history’, putting that statue, like the infamous Cape Town one, in a museum, would make it possible to contextualise it and confront and understand that history, in all its ugliness.   You can’t do that when the statue is stuck in a niche high above the street, usually noticed only by those who find it profoundly offensive.

Professor Richardson’s enlisting of Mandela in her defence of the Rhodes statue is deeply offensive not just to black people but to all those of us, particularly those of us who were lucky enough to know him, who regarded Mandela with boundless admiration and affection.   He was for many of us, pace the boarded-up statue of Churchill, without question the greatest moral and political leader of the twentieth century.   In response to the ‘hiding history’ brigade, I’ve heard it argued that Germany does not need to have statues of Hitler all over the place in order to confront its 20th century history.  That is obviously true, but the analogy is worth dwelling on.  Rhodes was not responsible for anything equivalent to the holocaust, but it is a fact that he was greatly admired by Hitler who is on record, according to Rhodes’ biographer Antony Thomas, as saying that Rhodes was the only person who understood the historical conditions for maintaining British supremacy, but had been ignored by his own people.  According to the same source, Hitler’s admiration for Rhodes is further evidenced in the former’s statement of his belief that ‘the German people are called by the divine destiny to be the leaders of the world for the glory of the German being as well as for the human race.’  This was, word for word, but for two key words, a direct quotation from the ‘nuanced’ Rhodes:  Hitler had replaced Rhodes’ ‘English ‘ with ‘German.’   Professor Richardson should have known better.

From David in York: Soweto Day. June 16th

https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/videos/the-world-witnesses-the-soweto-uprising/


June 16 th – Soweto Day. Forty-four years ago today in Soweto, at five to nine in the morning, a South African Policeman opened fire on a crowd of black South African schoolchildren singing freedom songs on a peaceful protest march. Hector Peterson was killed and the Soweto revolt was triggered. Forty-four years ago today, at five to nine in the morning, our eldest child, Anthony, was born.
So June 16 th is a memorable day. The photograph of the dying Hector Peterson, being carried away from that shooting by an anguished Mbuyisa Makhubo, seared itself into the memory of innumerable newspaper readers around the world, even as it enraged so many of us in South Africa. There have been very few iconic photographs in my lifetime that have managed to encapsulate an important historical moment so vividly and memorably. The two others that come to mind are the photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the naked Vietnamese child fleeing her napalmed village during the Vietnam War, and that of the drowned body of three year-old Alan Kurdi lying on the Mediterranean beach in 2015. They were all images that captured
the anguish and pathos of a dire situation that encompassed a great many people beyond the subjects of those individual photographs.
So Anthony’s 44 years have carried him through the stormy death-throes of
apartheid all the way to the becalmed waters of Covid-19 lockdown in York. When he was a child I used to tell him that one day his birthday would be public holiday and he would never have to work on it. Now it is, indeed, a public holiday in South Africa – now designated as Youth Day rather than Soweto Day – but he is no longer there to enjoy it, so he has to work on his birthday after all.
The children in Soweto were protesting against the imposition on them of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in their schools, in a situation in which neither they nor their teachers had much, if any, facility in Afrikaans, which would in most cases have been the children’s third or fourth language. No one government ever has a monopoly on stupidity. The Soweto revolt spread countrywide, with hundreds of black casualties, was greeted with international revulsion, and was one of the milestones on the long road to freedom. But it is good that the public holiday was renamed Youth Day: both in recognition of the role played more widely along that
road by young people all over South Africa, and by way of signalling hope for the future.
Today is not recognised as Youth Day in UK but it brings cause for celebrating youth. After a weekend in which large, ethnically-mixed, crowds of mainly young people came together to assert their belief that Black Lives Matter, braving the attentions of cohorts of right-wing racist thugs (and, potentially more rashly, Covid-19) in the process, Marcus Rashford has more or less single-handedly forced a government U-
turn on free summer lunch-vouchers for economically disadvantaged schoolchildren.
It may not be too much to hope that the groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement over the past few weeks could, like the Soweto protests, be a milestone on the long road to genuine racial equality in this country. In the meantime Anthony’s birthday appears to be heralding a shifting of the order of the generations: whereas it was always we who took our children out for special dinners on their birthdays, tonight Anthony is bringing a take-away dinner to us from Mumbai Lounge, arguably the best of the many curry restaurants in York. So the old
order changes.