From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Sorry – we are currently closed’

August 24th

Quelle catastrophe!  Woe are we!  What is the world coming to?  If you go to any of the 1,250 branches of McDonald’s anywhere in our still vaguely United Kingdom and ask for a milkshake of any flavour, you won’t be able to get one.  The same goes for bottled drinks.  It is darkly rumoured that not only is there a drinks drought in the McDonald’s desert but that they don’t do bagels or breakfast wraps any more either.   If you turn your back on McDonald’s in disgust and try Nando’s instead, you won’t be any luckier.  In fact, the chances are that you won’t even get through the front door.  Many Nando’s branches are closed: restaurants whose main business involves cooking chicken meat and coating it in peri-peri sauce tend to be at something of a disadvantage when their supplies of chicken dry up.  

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, is reported as telling The Independent that virtually all hospitality businesses are experiencing problems with their supply chains: ‘Our figures show that 94 per cent of hospitality businesses are experiencing problems, with about two-thirds of those saying some goods simply don’t arrive, thereby reducing the menu they can offer customers and severely undermining sales.’[1]  Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association is reported in the same article as having told The Independent that Nando’s problems are just ‘the tip of the iceberg’:  ‘I think we are going to see more and more closures.  It’s certainly Brexit-related but it is also the immigration decisions our politicians are making since Brexit.’

Government apologists are, of course, still trying to blame Covid for empty shelves in supermarkets and for restaurants that are still closed after Boris Johnson’s ‘Freedom Day’, and will no doubt continue to do so until the proverbial cows eventually find their way home.   But it wasn’t Covid that resulted in Barfoots of Botley, a farming company based on England’s south coast near Bognor Regis, having to leave 750,000 courgettes to rot in their fields.[2]  And it isn’t Covid that has resulted in Tesco reporting that their shops are having to bin almost 50 tons of food every week because it is taking so long to reach their supermarkets that its shelf-life has expired before it gets anywhere near the shelves.  

The all too predictable, and widely predicted, problems are two-fold.  Firstly, a shortage of staff in the hospitality sector so dire that some restaurants haven’t been able to reopen at all, alongside a simultaneous shortage of the migrant labour from the EU that previously picked our crops for us.  Secondly, a shortage of qualified drivers to drive heavy goods vehicles which is estimated by the Road Haulage Association to amount to around 100,000 drivers.  According to a BBC report, the Association estimates that some 25,000 EU drivers who were living and working in UK have upped and taken their services elsewhere.  Instead of being able to come and go as they pleased, as they could when UK was part of the single market, the drivers are now confronted by a swamp of border bureaucracy that makes it not just too much hassle to drive in and out of UK, but also too costly: many of the drivers are paid on the strength of the distance they drive, not the time it takes, so the hold-ups at the border end up being at their cost rather than that of their employers.[3]

There is, of course, a blindingly obvious solution to the shortages of agricultural pickers, hospitality workers and heavy goods vehicle drivers: relax immigration restrictions  This the government has repeatedly been asked to do by representatives of a number of different employment sectors.  Haulage companies, for example, are reported to have been calling for a change in the rules to make it easier for drivers from abroad to get temporary visas to work here.  Their solution is for foreign drivers to be added to the ‘Shortage Occupations’ list, allowing them to qualify for a skilled worker visa.  But, equally obviously, a xenophobic government that prides itself on having definitively ‘taken control of our borders’ (give or take the up to 800 odd refugees and asylum-seekers – a.k.a. ‘illegal immigrants’ – who arrive on our beaches in small boats almost daily) is not going to want to do that, much less be seen by its equally xenophobic supporters to do that.  

So what is the solution?  For people who don’t like foreigners, the Prime Ministerial and Home Office solution to the driver shortage is obvious and eminently simple  – train and test more home-grown drivers: ‘The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system and employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad.’  In the meantime, increase drivers’ daily driving limit from nine hours to 11 hours twice a week, as long as it ‘won’t compromise driver safety.’  Which it obviously will.  The Road Haulage Association has suggested that the 2000 odd drivers from the army’s Royal Logistics Corps could be assigned to take up some of the slack but, like the extension of drivers’ hours, that would only be a temporary ‘sticking-plaster.’  It has been suggested, apparently seriously, that the shortage of staff in the meat industry might be usefully addressed by getting prisoners to do the work.  But that presumably wouldn’t work for long-haul HGV drivers.

In the meantime, let’s get on with the serious business of extending Global Britain’s trading influence around the world by appointing Lord ‘Beefy’ Botham, our Brexit-loving, six-hitting, retired England all-rounder as our UK trade ambassador to Australia.  Our esteemed (in some quarters) international trade secretary, Liz Truss, is sending Botham in to “bat for business down under”.  Having recently been elevated to the peerage as one of Johnson’s best Brexit mates, Botham is bound to be able to hit Australia’s hard-nosed and very experienced trade negotiators for six.  His appointment serves as a useful distraction from the woes of our real, rather than our fantasy, economy and will please the Tories in the shires no end.  Botham needs all his skills as a famous all-rounder: it just seems a pity that being a famous cricketer requires much more in the way of brawn than of brain.[4]

messenger-dsk

  

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[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/mcdonald-s-milkshakes-brexit-supply-chain-b1907173.html

[2] https://www.euronews.com/2021/07/14/devastating-crops-left-to-rot-in-england-as-brexit-begins-to-bite

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/57810729

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/aug/23/ian-botham-appointed-uk-trade-ambassador-to-australia

From David Maughan Brown in York: National embarrassment

August 21st

There is a limit to the extent to which a governing party can scrape the bottom of the electoral barrel to win votes by pandering to the worst instincts of its electorate without ultimately embarrassing itself.   Having chosen to align themselves with Farage and UKIP in sneaking a marginal win in the Brexit referendum via unashamed displays of xenophobia, and then having rendered UKIP obsolete by adopting its policies and creating the most hostile of environments towards asylum seekers and refugees, the Tories under Johnson and Patel have painted themselves into a corner.   While the immorality and short-sightedness of xenophobia can pass without too much notice in the normal course of events,  people are liable to sit up and take notice when it comes to prime-time television footage of desperate people clinging to the fuselages of aircraft before plunging to their deaths, or parents despairing enough to pass their babies to unknown soldiers over barbed wire fences because they think that getting out of Afghanistan somehow, even without them, is their children’s only hope for the future. 

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are, of course, way beyond being able to be embarrassed by anything, no matter how contemptible, but there are clearly a significant number of more humane and intelligent Tory politicians – which by definition excludes anyone in the cabinet – who still have the capacity to feel deeply ashamed of what they are seeing on the news, which they must recognise they are in some measure responsible for.

Over the course of the past 20 years many thousands of Afghans will have condemned themselves to outer darkness in the eyes of the Taliban, with summary execution being the most direct route to that darkness, as the penalty for having worked with our armed forces, with Western governments, and with charities funded from Western countries.  The panicked crowds on the runways at Kabul airport and trying to get to the airport testify to the tens of thousands of Afghans who are now living in fear of their lives.  And our xenophobic government’s response to the chaos and crisis is graciously to offer to accept ‘up to’ (and we know from the practical  outcome of the Dubs Amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act what ‘up to’ means)  5000 Afghans under the Afghanistan citizen’s resettlement scheme over the coming year with ‘up to’ another 15,000 accepted over the following four years.   Boris Johnson tells us: “I am proud that the UK has been able to put in place this route to help them and their families live safely in the UK.”[1]

The response to this on the part of our more humane members of parliament was predictable, with Labour MP Chris Bryant posing the most trenchant question to the Prime Minister: ‘What are the 15,000 meant to do?  Hang around and wait until they have been executed?’[2]  But the vehement response to Johnson’s apparent lack of any vestige of understanding about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan was by no means confined to the parliamentary opposition.  Theresa May said, ‘We boast about Global Britain’, and asked: ‘But where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?’ Tory MP David Davis said that the UK should be prepared to take in more than 50,000 Afghans over the next few months if necessary and added a statement of what to anyone watching their televisions over the past few days will have been the bleeding obvious: ‘And I mean right now, in the short term.  This will be resolved, one way or another, within the next few months.’  According to Adam Forrest in The Independent, Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chair of the Defence Committee said ‘the government should be aiming to accept “at least” tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in the short term’: ‘The commitment to resettle a mere 5,000 refugees, from a population of 38 million Afghans, falls hopelessly short – a drop in the ocean given the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis.’

All of which presents a bit of a dilemma to a government which owes its majority to the cultivation and reinforcement of racism and xenophobia on the part of a large enough section of the electorate to get them into power.  Have those voters been watching their televisions? Do they really have no sympathy whatever for the women so desperate about the future of their children that they are prepared to hand them over to unknown British soldiers for safe-keeping?  Around 50% of our electorate are women:  don’t those women care in the least about what is likely to happen to the women of Afghanistan now that the Taliban has regained power?

Priti Patel’s and Boris Johnson’s answer to the question is clear.  The appalling way they have treated ‘illegal’ refugees and asylum seekers by, among other things, incarcerating them in condemned Covid-19-infested army barracks in Kent hasn’t lost them any votes in the shires.   Looking to send asylum seekers to be “processed” in Rwanda or on Ascension Island doesn’t seem to have gone down badly either.   So Priti Patel, the darling of those shires, claims that the UK cannot accommodate 20,000 refugees “all in one go”.[3]  So what, apart from the arrival of Priti Patel and Boris Johnson on the scene, has happened to prevent tens of thousands of refugees from being accommodated by UK “all in one go”, as happened in 1972 when 28,000 asylum seekers from Uganda, who were fleeing from Idi Amin as Afghans are currently fleeing from the Taliban, were accommodated by UK “all in one go”?  Priti Patel herself was, of course, one of the fortunate 28,000.  But, heigh ho, what is a ladder for, apart from being something to be pulled up behind one?


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/17/uk-to-take-20000-afghan-refugees-over-five-years-under-resettlement-plan

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/afghanistan-refugees-uk-settlement-scheme-b1904242.html

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-patel-afghan-refugees-settlement-b1904414.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: A crannog and a clown

Crannog on Loch Tay

August 5th

Normality at last – or as close to normality as one can get in the UK these days.  At the micro-level, a week spent with our daughter, her husband and their two daughters at a hired cottage in Kenmore, at the northern end of Loch Tay.   A week spent exploring the area (all travelling in the same car!); canoeing on the loch and watching the family swimming; enjoying the Olympics on a very large television screen on the rare occasions when it rained (very much less frequently and persistently than we would have been subjected to had we stayed in York); and playing games with the grandchildren.  We spent a fascinating morning at the museum at the Scottish Crannog Centre, which was, paradoxically, all the more interesting because the crannog itself (an iron age dwelling built out over the loch to avoid building on land that could be cultivated on the shore) had caught fire and burnt to piles and ashes in six minutes just four weeks before our visit.   

At the macro level, everyone was calmly going about their business as though the sensible requirements to keep wearing masks and maintain respectful social distances were perfectly normal.  They had avoided the headline-catching grandiosity and sheer stupidity of Boris Johnson’s much bruited ‘Independence Day’.  When Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, appeared on television, one had the sense of having arrived in a serious country whose leading politicians actually cared about the people they governed.  Throughout the six-hour drive up to Kenmore – which turned into an eight-hour drive on the way up as a result of a two-hour hold-up on the motorway resulting from a bad accident – I had a relieved sense that I was driving away from badly-produced and singularly unfunny comic-opera country.  By the time we came back, I found myself wondering what I was missing that was preventing roughly half the population of Scotland from being desperate to shake off their subjugation to the idiocies and incompetence of the Westminster government as rapidly as possible by attaining a genuine independence.

Even in Scotland the only way to escape footage of our Honourable Prime Minister lumbering around in a hi-viz jacket, with the straw-like ends of his storm-ravaged haystack of hair sticking randomly out from the brim of a hard hat, was by avoiding turning on the television.   The point of a hi-viz jacket is in the name: high visibility.   ‘Look at me, look at me’ it demands, like a three-year old desperate to show its mother that it can almost do a somersault.  Whoever manages Johnson’s diary appears have been instructed to ensure that he visits at least one factory, workshop, laboratory, ship-yard, building-site, or anywhere else he can get away with wearing a hi-viz jacket, at least once a day.   It is as if the man was born wearing a small, ill-fitting hi-viz jacket and now, like Linus Van Pelt with his security blanket, can’t feel wholly comfortable without one.

Johnson, whose minders have somehow managed to keep him away from Scotland for many months as a 100% guaranteed vote-loser for the Tories north of the border, travelled up to pay a two day visit immediately after we arrived back.  His visit was characterised, first, by his lying about not having turned down an invitation from Nicola Sturgeon to visit her in Edinburgh.  But that wasn’t unusual as Johnson tells lies much of the time.  Second, by his refusal to self-isolate when he got back in spite of the fact that one of the aides who had travelled with him has tested positive for Covid-19.  This merely reinforces the widespread recognition that it is ‘one rule for us and another for them.’  Third, he ‘joked’ about the lead Britain and the Conservative Party took in combatting climate change under Margaret Thatcher by having the foresight to close the coal mines in the 1980s: ‘Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.’  

This throw-away remark, made, almost unbelievably, on a visit intended to woo support for the continuation of the union, produced an immediate backlash.[1]  Alan Mardghum, secretary of the Durham Miners Association, said: ‘Johnson has again shown utter contempt for the people of former mining communities.  The wilful annihilation of the coal industry caused social and economic devastation in our communities that is still felt to this day.  It was an ideological assault.… It is no joke.’

Shortly after we arrived back from Scotland the BBC News covered the visit of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the exiled leader of the opposition in Belarus, to London where she was inevitably shown being ‘entertained’ by Johnson in Downing Street.  My reaction to the coverage can only be described as one of embarrassment.  Here was a person trying to lead the opposition to a brutal dictator, who was coming to our country looking for support in her efforts to do so, and all we could do as one of the richest and formerly most powerful countries in the world was present her with a clown for her to have to pretend to take seriously.  Johnson is a supreme narcissist, a racist, a serial liar and philanderer, a wholly immoral man capable of the crassest of misjudgements, and he is, it would seem, the best leader our England-dominated political system can come up with.

It is difficult to know precisely what the long-term economic effect would be were Scotland to gain its independence, shake the dust of Westminster off its shoes, and rejoin the European Union.  The Scottish Crannog Centre, which reflects five thousand years of Scotland’s history, is due to be rebuilt on a larger and better site immediately across the loch from its present location.   Scottish Independence could not possibly wreak as much damage to Scotland as last month’s fire did to the crannog, and a fresh start, as far as possible from the taint of the little-England mentality that currently dominates UK politics, might well be the best way Scotland could  start its next five thousand years.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/boris-johnson-mine-closures-joke-b1898337.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Freedom Day”

Mad as a box of frogs?

So “Freedom Day” has finally arrived.  We have reached Boris Johnson’s final milestone on the road out of lockdown. All covid restrictions have been lifted and we are now free to cavort all night, singing and dancing, hugging and kissing whoever we like, crammed into nightclubs with thousands of others who have finally been able to cast off, and consign ‘irreversibly’ to history, the face-masks and other restrictions that infringed their right to liberty and dignity – indeed every human right you can think of – so wantonly.   It may not quite compare with the storming of the Bastille, or the signing of the American Declaration of Independence, or the ending of apartheid, but it comes pretty damn close.  Apart from anything else, it has the signal advantage for our honourable Prime Minister of freeing him from his oft-repeated promise to heed the scientific advice and follow the data not the dates.

On the strength of what our government appears to think is an unanswerable question, however often it is parroted – ‘If not now, when?’ – it is confidently falling back on the certainty that the British public will always behave responsibly.  Obviously, no one in Government was watching the TV coverage of the European football final.  Why bother when England is so manifestly superior in every respect to any other country in Europe (in spite of the England team clearly having too many children of immigrants who should have been sent back to where they came from) that it was bound to win unless the referee, or the other team, or both, cheated?  Had Boris and his cabinet been watching the coverage, they might have noticed that their ‘responsible’ citizens in the stands and fan zones were doing anything but maintaining responsible social distancing.  As an answer to ‘If not now, when?’, why not try ‘When everyone who is prepared to be vaccinated has been vaccinated’.

Covid? No worries.

No, we can’t wait for more people to be vaccinated – the economy would suffer too badly.  A covert return to Boris’s original ‘herd immunity’ strategy would be far better: keep the economy going and ‘learn to live with’ the dying of a few tens of thousands more victims of Covid, and the long-Covid disablement of tens of thousands of others.  Interesting idea – but the timing could perhaps be better:  Boris Johnson has timed his lifting of all restrictions to coincide almost exactly with the moment when the rapidly rising infection rate of our third wave of Covid reaches the nice round figure of 50,000 a day.  The inevitable consequence of that is, as The Guardian has pointed out: ‘The latest figures released by the NHS show more than half a million people were contacted and told to self-isolate between 1 and 7 July, the highest weekly figure since the app launched.’[1]  This has already resulted in multiple smaller businesses – pubs, hotels and shops – having to close as a result of a policy intended to enable them to open and stay open, and is threatening to close supermarkets and bring car production lines to a grinding halt.  By 16th August, the date until which our government, committed as it is ‘to data not dates’, is determined to keep the current self-isolation rules in force (in spite of its ‘Freedom Day’ lifting of all restrictions), it is estimated that nine times as many, around 4.5 million, people will have been forced into self-isolation by the pinging of the NHS app with all the fallout to the economy that will entail.  

Except that, perhaps, after all, it is a matter for their own or their employers’ discretion as to whether they need to self-isolate and contribute to the stalling of the economy by doing so.  No lesser eminences than our Investment Minister, Gerry Grimstone, and our Business Minister, Paul Scully,(ever heard of them? No, I haven’t either) have asserted that employees and their employers could choose to ignore the instruction to self-isolate if it reached them via the NHS app, which is ‘only advisory’, rather than Test and Trace, which is legally binding (although all restrictions have been lifted).[2]  Scully confided that he knew how frustrating this was because he ‘had to self-isolate last week [him]self for over a week, and I know how incredibly mind-numbing it is as well as the impact on the economy.’  The numbing of his mind was clearly long lasting if it allowed him to continue to fit ‘over a week’ into his week.  Sadly, within an hour of Scully making his statement, he was contradicted by ‘Downing Street’, England’s most talkative cul-de-sac: ‘Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus. Given the risk of having and spreading the virus, when people have been in contact with someone with Covid it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS test and trace or by the NHS Covid app.’

It is hardly surprising in the circumstances that the shadow health minister, Justin Madders, should have seized on the opportunity to take a shot at the open goal: ‘The government is making it up as they go along. Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals when the public and businesses need clarity and certainty.’

The mere mixing of messages, and accompanying bumbling ineptitude, on the part of Johnson and his cabinet is not, however, the most serious charge on the charge sheet.  That has, as a consequence of the extraordinary timing of ‘Freedom Day’, been elevated from corporate manslaughter to murder.   More than 1,200 scientists from around the world have, according to an article by Adam Forrest and Jon Stone in Saturday’s Independent, written a letter to The Lancet condemning Johnson’s decision to lift all Covid restrictions on 19th July as a ‘murderous policy … of herd immunity by mass infection.’[3] The policy is, as far as they are concerned, ‘unscientific and unethical’ because it will allow the Delta variant to spread rapidly around the world – London is, after all, a global travel hub.   The argument that Johnson’s policy is ‘murderous’ has been very cogently articulated by William Haseltine, a prominent HIV/AIDS researcher in the US: ‘I believe the strategy of herd immunity is actually murderous: I think that is the word we should use, because that is what it is; it is knowledge that you are doing something that will result in thousands, and in some cases tens of thousands of people dying.  It is a disastrous policy, it’s been clear that that’s been the case for some time, and to continue to espouse that policy is unconscionable.’

Everyone should be aware by now that Johnson is unsurpassed when it comes to being ‘unscientific and unethical’, but his lack of anything resembling ethical awareness is very seldom called out quite so cogently.   The grieving relatives and friends of the untold thousands who will die as a result of Johnson’s maverick policy decision would do well to take their lead from Haseltine and hold him accountable for their murder.  This whole scenario is so Alice in Nightmareland-ish that if Johnson were to enter a plea of insanity in response to the indictment, most people would have very little difficulty in believing it.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/19/cbi-and-marks-spencer-join-calls-for-government-to-tackle-pingdemic

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/20/isolate-if-pinged-by-nhs-covid-app-says-no-10-despite-ministers-claims

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-covid-scientists-warning-b1885305.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Nessun dorma

Covering over the racist graffiti

July 14th

What kind of bizarre moral universe is one living in when it is professional football managers and players, rather than Prime Ministers and their governments, who find themselves having to provide moral leadership to a country?

All too often in the past the England football team has given the impression of being populated by talented but grossly overpaid and underperforming egotists who were as incapable of behaving themselves off the field as they were unable to subordinate their own egos for the good of the team on it.  England football managers have come and gone in recent years with varying success where results were concerned, but seldom with any great conviction when it came to integrating those multiple egos into a harmonious whole. 

How very different are the present manager and team.   The wholly unflamboyant Gareth Southgate is, besides being a shrewd tactician, a thoughtful and articulate student of the game and an outstanding leader.  He is almost superhuman in his ability to remain calm and in control on the touch-line.  His young team are highly talented and superbly integrated, in every sense of the word.  They play for each other and look after each other, and very clearly respect their manager – to the point where there was never any sign of resentment when they were substituted, even on the one occasion on which Southgate found himself needing to substitute Grealish, who had relatively recently come onto the field as a substitute himself.  The togetherness of the team was very impressive when they were winning, but even more so when they eventually lost in the final.   The footage of the other players and Southgate himself crowding round to hug and console the three players who had missed their penalties was starkly different from the footage, shown often over the past fortnight, of Southgate walking off the field on his own after missing his crucial penalty in the semi-final in 1996.

There was a sickening inevitability about the torrent of racial abuse that was unleashed on social media as a result of the fact that it just happened to be three of the black players in this very diverse team who missed their penalties on this occasion.  But that has also served to demonstrate the off-field strengths of this manager and team and the affection in which they are now held by a great many supporters.  At one level that affection is visibly demonstrated by the sticking of multiple messages of support for Rashford and, by implication the team, on a mural in Manchester that had been defaced with racist abuse, as seen in the photograph.

At another level the strength and self-belief of the team are clear from Tyrone Mings’ preparedness to call out the hypocrisy of our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and by implication our Prime Minister, who both went on record to condemn the racist abuse of the three players, having spectacularly failed to condemn the booing that greeted the team’s ‘taking of the knee’ as soon as football fans were allowed into the stadiums to watch the matches.   Mings, who has been one of the less prominent of England’s players where speaking out against racism is concerned, was commendably forthright: ‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as “Gesture Politics” and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we are campaigning against happens.’

By contrast with the principled stand against racism taken by the England football players, one wonders how it is possible for a ridiculously expensive and pretentious public school like Eton to imbue its pupils with so little self-awareness that Boris Johnson can condemn the ‘appalling’ racist abuse of English players and expect anyone to take him remotely seriously.  This is the same Boris Johnson who talks unapologetically about ‘piccaninnies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’ and Muslim women in burqas looking like ‘letter-boxes’.   The same Boris Johnson who is quite happy to persuade enough of his disgusting Tory MPs to vote for an indefinite prolongation of the cut to Financial Aid to see off those of his more principled Tory colleagues who think that allowing hundreds of thousands of children to die entirely unnecessary deaths isn’t a good idea.  Why would Johnson worry?  None of those children are English, and the vast majority of them of them will be black, many of them no doubt in his view just ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles.’

Who would ever have guessed that a time could come when one can be absolutely certain that England would be a more principled and better country if it were to be led by a team of football players and their manager?  It might also, of course, be a better governed country if it were to be run by a group of brave and idealistic footballers rather than our present bunch of corrupt and self-interested Tory politicians, forever playing to their xenophobic right-wing constituents.  It could hardly be run much worse.

David Maughan Brown: Of deckchairs and dance schools

Summer?

Deck chairs are one of the world’s more considerate inventions when it comes to soporifically sunny summer days on beaches, particularly when those beaches happen to consist of stones rather than sand, like those, for example, in Brighton and Hove(actually).   ‘Beaches’ consisting of stones, euphemistically referred to as ‘pebbles’, can occasion acute discomfort to bare feet, even when they have had some of the sharp edges worn off by being rolled around in the waves for a few millennia.  They also tend to be seriously uncomfortable to sit on. While not exactly the lap of luxury, deck chairs are generally a preferable alternative to sitting on stones. 

Wet afternoons on hilltops in Sheffield, a very long way from any pebbly expanse alongside the sea that purports to be a beach, are by contrast a very different matter – even at the height of what passes for the summer.   Deck chairs appear to be cleverly designed to ensure that, regardless of which of the various options one chooses as the correct angle for the back rest, rain water can be guaranteed to run down the back and pool in the seat, irrespective of whether or not one happens to be sitting in it.   So one can get thoroughly soaked from the bottom up, so to speak, without ever having to go near the pebbles or the sea.   Add an umbrella into the mix and you have a marriage made in a very wet heaven: the rainwater cascades off the umbrella to be redirected by the back of the deck-chair to swell the pool at the bottom. 

Our Sunday afternoon last Sunday was spent on top of one of Sheffield’s seven hills – the city’s main, and possibly only, claim to affinity with Rome – watching the annual dance-show put on my ten-year-old granddaughter’s dance school.  The weather forecast had not been propitious, predicting rain around the time the show was scheduled to start, but that wasn’t ever going to faze the dedicated organisers of a dance-school annual show – any more than Covid-19 was going to stop the show just because it couldn’t take place indoors.  So we went prepared with such waterproofs as we could muster, and armed with quantities of umbrellas.  I even managed to locate a set of waterproof leggings to wear over my jeans that I had last worn thirty years ago when watching my sons play football in the pouring rain in Hove, which seemed somehow appropriate.

So we took our seats on deck chairs in the open in front of a stage that looked as if it had been designed for a pop concert and, by way of the trailer for the main event,  watched a thunderstorm advancing inexorably towards us from the south west, which, conveniently enough, happened to be behind the stage.  Given that thunder-storms and lightning go rather well together, I spent part of the time trying to assess whether there was anything in the immediate vicinity that would provide a more welcoming conductor for the lightning than the metal uprights supporting the cover over the stage on which my granddaughter would soon be dancing.  I concluded that there was a good chance that any lightning would find a couple of lamp-posts near the carpark more attractive as they reached marginally higher into the sky than the stage uprights.  But I wasn’t able to convey this less than definitive information to my socially distanced granddaughter who was very scared by the thunder when the storm did hit us two or three dances into the show.

Health and Safety fortunately dictated that a temporary halt need to be called, so we were able to escape the worst of the downpour to sit in a very steamy car for twenty minutes or so until the storm died down to a steady and persistent cold drizzle and a resumption of proceedings was announced.  Although hastily folded and left on the ground on our way to the car, the deckchairs were no drier by the time the show resumed.  Nor did the stage entirely escape the rain.  Although the organisers conjured-up a pile of towels from somewhere with which to dry the exposed front edge of the stage, some water had leaked through at the back, as one of the somewhat older dancers discovered to her cost when she slipped and fell flat on her face.  Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt, merely shocked, but she wasn’t the only one who slipped, and for the next few ballet items the dancers had to dance barefoot, which hadn’t been rehearsed.

The show lasted three and a half hours with the dancers all taking part in at least one freshly-costumed dance in each of the disciplines they were taught in the school: ballet, tap, street, modern… you name it.   The rain relented towards the end of the first half and most of the second half could have been completed without any added wetness, had the organisers hired a portaloo or two.  But the available resources had apparently been used up by the hire of the stage, so the cold and bedraggled audience of doting relatives had to queue for the one loo that Covid restrictions allowed to be open in the community hall beside which the stage had been erected. The result was a very prolonged interval and a late night for the gaggle of twenty to thirty three and four-year-olds who had showed off their very nascent dancing capabilities in the first half but were expected to stay until the end so that they could stand looking tired and forlorn off-stage in the rain for the finale.

We are very pleased that Covid-19 restrictions had been relaxed to the point where we could go down to Sheffield for the weekend, and we very much enjoyed watching our granddaughter dancing her six dances, which she did beautifully.  It did cross my mind from time to time, however, that the Blitz Spirit can perhaps be overdone, and that the organisers of children’s dance-school shows might sometimes, not entirely unreasonably, be considered to be somewhat over-endowed with that spirit.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Every country has the government it deserves.’

Who could be nasty enough to deserve this government?

July 8th

Ruth Davidson, the admirable former leader of the Tories in Scotland, went on record this week to warn Boris Johnson that the Tories will be seen as the “nasty party” if they persist with the 0.2% reduction in the UK’s Financial Aid budget.[1]   It seems reasonable enough to consider that being responsible for the unnecessary deaths of a few hundred thousand children around the globe, who would not have died had the £4 billion cut not been made, might be regarded as a symptom of nastiness.  But it isn’t as if it is the only indicator pointing in that direction.  Nor is it just a question of possibly being regarded as nasty at some hypothetical time in the future.   Johnson’s government exudes nastiness from every pore, as exemplified by three of his four senior cabinet ministers.  Dominic Raab merely exudes complacency.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, comes across as the sanest and most level-headed of all those in the cabinet, but it is he who insisted on the cut to the Financial Aid budget, despite the clear commitment to maintaining the legally mandated 0.7% of GDP which was promised in the in the Tory election manifesto,  and it is he who is insisting on cutting £20 a week from universal credit payments in the near future.  Rob Merrick tells us in an article in Monday’s Independent that the cut will affect six million households and push an estimated 200,000 more children ‘below the breadline’.[2]

This comes on top of the quaintly termed ‘Covid catch-up tsar’, Sir Kevan Collins, having felt obliged to resign his role because Sunak’s Treasury had only agreed to fund £1.4 billion of the £15 billion required for the schools’ catch-up programme. An utterly derisory £22 for each primary school child in England is going to compensate for an average of 115 days of school missed as a result of the pandemic?   One could be forgiven for concluding that nasty parties don’t much like children, even the children from their own country.  Perhaps that is because it is pensioners, rather than people who still have their lives to live, who tend to vote for the Tories.

Our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new Secretary for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, can’t be held responsible for what happened in that department before his over-promoted predecessor, Matt Hancock, was caught on camera following his Prime Minister’s example by having a steamy extra-marital affair, but the sickening cynicism and ingratitude of the award to the NHS of a George Cross for bravery in lieu of a pay-rise greater than an insulting 1% that was announced soon after his take-over of the portfolio is quintessentially Tory and indisputably nasty.   It also requires a certain nastiness to be able blithely to announce that abandoning all Covid restrictions could result in 100,000 new infections every day and (you don’t have long to wait for the inevitable adverb) ‘sadly’ a number of deaths.  But, sadly, ‘We will just have to learn to live with it.’

And then, of course, we have our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the distilled essence of Tory nastiness.   Further to her exploration variously of Ascension Island, Gibraltar and Rwanda as suitable – i.e. far-away and out of sight – places to transport asylum-seekers to for ‘processing’, Patel has now hit on the wizard wheeze of forcibly turning back the small boats that asylum-seekers, denied access to more conventional routes, have been using to try to cross the English Channel. This practice is known as ‘pushback’ and is, according to the UNHCR (the UN’s Refugee Agency), ‘simply illegal.’  The title of May Bulman’s report on this in Wednesday’s Independent says it all: ‘Illegal, dangerous, morally wrong – campaigners decry Home Office asylum plans.’[3]  Bulman quotes Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International who says that pushbacks ‘are disdainful of international law and dangerous for the people subjected to them.’  Moreover, contrary to Patel’s misconception, he asserts that: ‘It is people’s right to seek asylum and there is no requirement [in international law] for them to do that in any one country.’  Not that this is likely to cut much ice with Johnson and his obsequious cabinet who have already demonstrated their contempt for international law via their disdain for the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol.

A Local Government Association analysis has concluded that: ‘Significant government funding cuts, soaring demand for child protection services and increasing costs to give children the support they need mean that budgets cannot keep up.’[4]It calculates that there is currently a £1.4 billion budget shortfall if Councils are going to be funded adequately to keep even the present reduced level of children’s services going.  The government argues that this expenditure is not affordable, given the hit our economy has taken from the pandemic.  But that simply doesn’t wash from a government prepared to spaff tens of billions up the wall, to use Johnson’s elegant terminology, on a hopelessly ineffectual Track and Trace system, on PPE and other Covid-related contracts for its chums, and on transporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Joseph de Maistre is credited with the saying that ‘Every country has the government it deserves.’   The only representatives of the UK that come to mind right now who are deserving of a government as irredeemably nasty as this one are those mindless sections of our football crowds xenophobic enough to boo the opposition’s national anthem and to shine laser pointers in the eyes of opposing goal-keepers as they get ready to save penalties.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tories-overseas-aid-nasty-party-davidson-b1877895.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tory-revolt-universal-credit-sunak-b1877929.html

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/channel-pushbacks-asylum-seekers-home-office-priti-patel-b1878961.html

[4] https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/childrens-care-crisis-councils-forced-overspend-almost-ps800m-childrens-social-care

From David Maughan Brown in York: Kindred spirits?

Rwanda Genocide

27th June

So our quintessentially awful Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has abandoned her bright ideas of using first St Helena and then Gibraltar as suitable places to transport asylum-seekers to for ‘processing’, and has now hit on the even brighter idea of trying Rwanda for size.  As a proven bully whose sacking was cravenly ducked by our inimitable prime minister, resulting in the resignation of his independent standards adviser, Patel could hardly have chosen a country better suited to her temperament, and worse suited to the business of welcoming traumatised and desperate asylum-seekers.   There’s nothing like choosing a country best known for genocide as a suitable place for ‘processing’ people a Home Secretary would love to get rid of.

As someone whose treatment of asylum seekers who have managed to reach our shores, notably at the notorious Napier Barracks, demonstrates an open contempt for human rights, Patel will, at best, not have been remotely interested in Human Rights Watch’s views on Rwanda, and, at worst, have felt the attraction of kindred spirits. It isn’t difficult to see why Patel might have felt that attraction:

‘The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front continues to target those perceived as a threat to the government.  Several high-profile critics have been arrested or threatened and authorities regularly fail to conduct credible investigations into cases of enforced disappearances and suspicious deaths of government opponents.  Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities is commonplace, and fair trial standards are routinely flouted in many sensitive political cases, in which security-related charges are often used to prosecute prominent government critics. Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of street children,sex workers and petty vendors occurs widely.’[1]

A Human Rights Watch report on press freedom tells us that ‘In a country where the president coolly gives speeches gloating about the assassination of political opponents, his 2019 warning to online critics that “they are close to the fire” and that one day “the fire will burn them” will likely be taken very seriously.  It is not unusual for Rwandan journalists to go missing or end up dead in mysterious circumstances.’[2]  And those who end up ‘dead in mysterious circumstances’ are not confined within the borders of Rwanda: taking a leaf out of apartheid South Africa’s playbook, Rwandan dissidents and critics, not just in in neighbouring Uganda and Kenya but further afield in South Africa and Europe, have been attacked and murdered.  Neighbouring Uganda is, of course, the country from which Priti Patel’s own family had to flee to seek asylum from Idi Amin in the UK.  They were welcomed; they weren’t immediately sent to Rwanda for ‘processing’.

The almost unbelievable callousness of wanting to send asylum seekers for ‘processing’ all the way to Rwanda, of all places, wasting tax-payers’ money in the process, is sickening.  And it is deeply disheartening to know that we have a government and electorate that might take this insane idea seriously.  But it is even more sickening to hear Patel hypocritically pretending that what this is all about is stopping asylum-seekers from drowning in the English Channel.  It isn’t. Judging by her bullying treatment of asylum-seekers, there is no reason whatever to think that she would give a damn about that.  What this is all too obviously about is a base pandering to the xenophobia of traditional, mainly elderly, Conservative Party supporters in the shires and new Tory converts behind the former ‘red wall’.  

If you don’t want people to die, don’t force desperate asylum-seekers into small boats at the mercy of people-traffickers.  Instead, provide safe routes for them to arrive in the way that Patel’s own family arrived. A report in today’s Independent quotes a Home Office spokesperson going through the necessarily mindless process of defending everything Patel says or does: ‘Our asylum system is broken and we cannot sit idly by while people die attempting to cross the Channel…. We will not rule out any option that could help reduce the illegal migration and relieve the pressure on the broken asylum system.’ [3] ‘Broken’ because brave and desperate people are actually managing to get to the UK to seek asylum despite the Home Office’s best attempts to thwart them.   ‘Any option’ now clearly includes looking for help in ‘processing’ asylum-seekers from a country made notorious by genocide.  What has our country come to?


[1] https://www.hrw.org/africa/rwanda

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/03/what-press-freedom-looks-rwanda

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-patel-johnson-immigration-offshore-b1873903.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Shutters

Connectedness

June 24th

So it is now five years to the glorious day since those fateful few hours when UK voted by 52% to 48% to shake off the stifling bonds of EU bureaucracy, regain our national sovereignty, freedom and independence, and leap forward into a future of limitless enterprise and boundless opportunity.   So how has that worked out then?

Our Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (really), the Honourable (truly) Member pf Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, thinks it has gone swimmingly: ‘This government got Brexit done and we’ve already reclaimed our money, laws, borders and waters.  The decision to leave the EU may now be part of our history, but our clear mission is to utilise the freedoms it brings to shape a better future for our people.’*

That better future on the sunlit uplands will, for those of us fortunate enough to have our present Tory government leading us onward into it, be based on all the bountiful free trade deals we can strike with the rest of the world.  Trade deals like one we will benefit from when we obtain membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.  It may be a bit of a stretch to see ourselves as part of the Pacific rim, but we are now Global Britain and our prospective trade deal with the CPTPP will increase our post-Brexit GDP by as much as 0.08% (although if Malaysia continues to refuse to come to the party that may only be 0.017%). A 0.8% GDP gain is less than one fortieth of the GDP loss we are scheduled to suffer from our exit from Europe, which happens to be a bit closer than the Pacific rim, but the fact that it has been freely entered into as an assertion of our sovereignty more than makes up for a mere 39% hit to GDP.

In terms of ‘reclaiming our money’ the Office for Budget Responsibility, not exactly a radical left-wing think-tank, estimated in March last year that about two-fifths of the damage Brexit would do to our economy had already been done.  Ben Chu, The Independent’s Economics editor concludes from this that, based on our 66m population, ‘the cost of Brexit so far on average is around £480 per person, with a further £720 to go.’  The title of Chu’s article sums it up very succinctly: ‘The real ‘Brexit dividend’? Minus £800m a week – and counting’**

In terms of ‘reclaiming our borders’, thousands and thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees are risking their lives by crossing the English Channel in overcrowded small boats in the absence of safe ways of reaching our shores.  The Guardian reported that 538 arrived last month and predicted that many more will be arriving through the rest of the summer.  ‘Reclaiming our waters’ hasn’t gone a lot better, with UK fishermen, many of whom voted ‘leave’ on the strength of the empty promise to reclaim our waters now finding themselves out of work, having been ‘betrayed’, as Lord Heseltime, the former Tory deputy prime minister bluntly puts it, along Johnson’s way to ‘getting Brexit done’ – or not, in fact, ‘getting Brexit done’, given the years of further negotiations that await.  Next in line to be sold down the river after our fishermen were our beef and mutton producing farmers whose livelihoods will be steadily eroded over the next fifteen years by the trade deal with Australia – for a possible best scenario 0.02% boost to our GDP.  

Johnson’s unprincipled and mendacious government will try in perpetuity to brush the stupidity and economic illiteracy of Brexit under the Covid-19 carpet. And, for those of us who don’t live in Northern Ireland and are retired and not at risk of losing our jobs and falling into destitution, five years on, the tangible day-to-day impact of Brexit remains relatively imperceptible – prices in the shops going up, goods ordered on line taking longer to arrive etc. ­ This was well summed-up by Thiemo Fetzer, a University of Warwick economist quoted by Ben Chu: ‘The problem is you don’t know how the UK would have unfolded if it hadn’t been for that vote.  Brexit is death by a thousand needles, it’s not an earthquake.  You don’t hear about each of the pricks of the needle.’

Five years on I don’t feel any less sad than I did on the morning after the outcome of the referendum was announced.  A sadness which informed a poem I wrote soon afterwards: 

Shutters

(June 24th 2016)

Someone came last night 
and shut our shutters,
unexpectedly.

We do not know precisely
who it was, or why,
or even whether they knew why.

In Italy and France and Spain
the shutters mediate the heat, 
allowing strips of light to filter through
open windows
bringing snatches of talk and song
in other tongues.

Azure and ochre, deep cerulean blue,
indefinite shades of rose and red,
their shutter-palette sings
Manet, Monet and Van Gogh.

Here, there is no heat to mediate:
our shutters used to signify
connectedness 
across a continent  

until someone came last night
and shut them
unexpectedly.

Can it really be 
they want to shutter out 
all talk and song in other tongues?

Our house is darker now.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Politicians vs Polecats

Unimpressed

June 16th 2021

Soweto Day, now Youth Day, in South Africa – one of the most noteworthy milestones on the very long road to democracy in South Africa.   That was the day when the apartheid police murdered some 176 (probably an underestimate) black schoolchildren who were peacefully protesting against the absurdity of having to be taught in Afrikaans when neither they nor their teachers necessarily knew any Afrikaans.  As I remarked in my blog entry on June 16th last year, no government has a monopoly on stupidity.

Soweto accelerated the process whereby apartheid South Africa came to be seen by more liberal governments as the polecat of the western world.  The circle of eminent political leaders metaphorically prepared to elbow-bump the likes of Prime Ministers BJ Vorster and PW Botha, who would not have been welcomed by the majority of members of a 1980s G7 in the way South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was welcomed this week, steadily shrank to the Thatcher/ Reagan ‘special relationship’.

For all Boris Johnson’s bluster about the success of the G7 meeting in Cornwall and his assurances to the world that the ripples of antagonism from ‘our friends across the channel’ in the aftermath of Brexit had played a ‘vanishingly small’ part in the G7 meeting, it is quite clear that UK, and ‘Britain Trump’ in particular, are in the process of assuming in the 2020s the pariah status with the EU leaders that apartheid South Africa had in the 1970s and 1980s.  This is entirely understandable: one prefers not to bump elbows with portly polecats.

The problem, of course, is that the EU is too ‘purist’ and pedantic and isn’t adequately respectful of other countries’ ‘territorial integrity’.  Its leaders go in for a wholly unreasonable fetishization of legally binding agreements.  Not only do they assume that the leaders of other countries like the UK will have read and understood what the agreements they sign actually mean, but they also fondly imagine that the leaders who sign them will, in doing so, have every intention of sticking to their word.  That is generally the way international relations work.  But it isn’t the way polecats work:  polecats do what they like and cause a stink if anyone gets in their way.

The stink in this instance is wafting over the UK rather than the EU where, to judge by President Macron’s comments, the air seems as clear as the major players are in their determination to play by the rules.  The final Brexit deal with all its warts, and its long predicted and unavoidably negative consequences for peace in Northern Ireland, was what Johnson demanded, negotiated and agreed to.   It was Johnson who accepted the need for a virtual border down the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Eire after Theresa May had rejected it.  If anyone is to be blamed for not ‘respecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’ – the accusation Johnson and Raab are now hurling at the EU – it is Johnson himself.

Macron’s Parthian shot as he left the G7 was very much to the point: ‘We are respectful, and for a number of years after Brexit we have established certain rules, a protocol agreement and a trade treaty for future relations.  We just want them to be respected seriously, calmly and professionally – that’s all…. You mustn’t make the EU deal with certain incoherences that you were well aware of from the beginning.’  

Nobody should ever have expected Johnson, egged on by his xenophobic cheer-leaders in the right-wing tabloid press to behave ‘seriously, calmly and professionally.’  He is threatening another unilateral and illegal extension of the grace period that currently allows sausages and other chilled meats to travel unchecked from Great Britain to Northern Ireland but is due to end in two weeks’ time.   The EU would be entitled to, and on this occasion almost certainly will, impose retaliatory tariffs seriously, calmly and professionally.  The so-called ‘sausage war’ seems likely to escalate; the ‘marching season’ over the summer in Northern Ireland will exacerbate tensions between unionists and republicans; and the incipient violence will intensify.  In the long run – and the long run might not be that long – the drift of public opinion in Northern Ireland towards favouring the reunification of Ireland, which is apparently already discernible, will reach a tipping point, and it will be Johnson himself who will be to blame for the very literal destruction of the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.   It makes sense, after all, to put as much distance as possible between oneself and a polecat.