Personal stories from around the world during the year of COVID-19
Category Archives: David Maughan Brown in York UK
Occasional poet and novelist since retiring as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of York St John University in 2013. Prior to that, Professor of African Literature, and subsequently Senior DVC, at the University of Natal. First degrees from the universities of Cape Town and Cambridge; D.Phil from Sussex.
It took 30 years of violence during the euphemistically termed ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, at the cost of more than 3,500 lives, before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement enabled the more than twenty years of peace that followed. It took all of three months from the end of the one-year Brexit transition period on December 31st for the petrol bombs to start being hurled again, and buses and cars in Northern Ireland to start being torched. It is reported that more than ninety policemen in Belfast and elsewhere have been injured in the riots over the past couple of weeks. A quaintly deferential pause has been called by the ‘loyalists’ to the escalation of what is rapidly becoming a deeply worrying conflict between the Protestant and Catholic sides of the great divide in recognition of the week of mourning following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, but this ‘truce’ has no more chance of lasting than the unofficial truce that broke out on the Western Front at Christmas in 1914. Boris Johnson can’t pretend he wasn’t warned.
Northern Ireland was always going to be the single intractable and ultimately irresolvable problem with Brexit. As the legacy of slavery hangs over the United States, and to a somewhat lesser extent over us, so the legacy still endures of the ‘planting’ of Protestants in the north of Catholic Ireland that began some three hundred years ago. As long as Northern Ireland remained one of the four component parts of the United Kingdom, and Ireland remained part of the European Union, the former’s departure from the EU was going to have to result in a border of some description between the two if the EU was going to be able to maintain the integrity of its trading standards. It was abundantly clear that a land border of any description would inevitably, and very quickly, put the fragile peace accord of the Good Friday Agreement in serious jeopardy. So Boris Johnson, very late in the Brexit negotiations with the EU, adopted what seemed to be the lesser of two evils and agreed to a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain down the Irish Sea.
One minor problem with this solution was that Johnson had visited Northern Ireland the previous August and assured the political and business communities, hand on heart, that access to the markets the other side of the Irish Sea would remain entirely unfettered: ‘There will be no border down the Irish Sea, that will happen over my dead body.’ Whether this was a deliberate, bare-faced lie, like some many of his others – his conscience and any ethical sense he might ever have had were dead and buried long ago, even if his body hasn’t yet followed their example – or whether he simply hadn’t bothered to look at, or think through, the detail, is immaterial. Trade in both directions is fettered; many businesses in Great Britain have decided it isn’t worth the hassle to continue to deliver to Northern Ireland; the supermarket shelves there are depleted; and unionists, in particular, understandably feel betrayed.
Even as the petrol bombs exploded and the police were trying to quell the rioting last week there was little indication that Downing Street gave much of a damn about what was going on. Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, went to the verbal extreme of declaring that the injuries to the ninety-odd policemen were ‘unacceptable’. But I suspect that for all his protestations of devotion to the United Kingdom Boris Johnson himself, ensconced as King of his Little England castle, just doesn’t care about what happens to those he probably thinks of as the ‘Paddies’ and ‘Micks’ of Ireland, precious few of whom ever got to Eton. Ireland, like France, is the other side of a stretch of water and full of people who, because they aren’t part of England, are all essentially foreigners, even if the ‘loyalists’ don’t agree, and even if they all speak a version of the Queen’s English. But Johnson would do well to remember that, with Biden now President of the United States, if the Good Friday Agreement goes up in flames, which seems pretty well inevitable if Johnson keeps on down the path he is taking at present, any hopes of a trade deal with the United States, supposedly the one big, fat prize of Brexit (however deluded that ambition was in the first place) will be consumed to ashes by those very same flames.
One of the stranger and thus far insufficiently analysed – although frequently observed – symptoms of the changes the Covid-19 epidemic has brought about in England is a rash of red, white and blue flags that can be seen to have broken out in the offices of cabinet ministers. It is widely suspected that this may somehow be linked to the UK’s departure from the European Union. While it isn’t considered likely to be fatal in itself, there would appear to be a possibility that, like other prolonged side-effects of long-Covid, this could be seriously damaging and debilitating for England in the longer term. It is worth noting that the same side-effect is not being observed in the other three countries of the currently United Kingdom, and is not thought likely to prove dangerous for them. Indeed, it is even possible that it could in the long run result in their separation from England, and thereby protect them from this peculiarly English variant.
The rash of flags has in recent months been largely confined to the stage sets for ministerial press conferences and interviews, and the offices of generally male, and generally somewhat adolescent, cabinet ministers who appear to have been vying with one another to see who has the biggest one. But the rash will soon be breaking out over all government buildings. ‘New rules surrounding flying of the Union Flag’ were published by the Government on March 24th, although, as with so much else, our government of all the talentless couldn’t make up its collective mind and so concluded the announcement by saying: ‘This update is guidance only and will apply from the summer.’ * So not ‘rules’, then, just ‘guidance’. But, unsurprisingly, it will be a rule, not just guidance, that planning permission will be required before anyone can fly the flag of the European Union.
Currently, Union jacks are only required to be flown on all UK Government buildings on some 20 designated days every year – the quirkily British designation often having to do with the birthdays of members of the royal family – but the expectation is that in future they will be flown every day. And it isn’t just the government’s expectation; it is apparently also the expectation of ‘the people’, whose minds our psychic government is always confident it can read. As Culture [Wars] Secretary Oliver Dowden put it: ‘The Union flag unites us as a nation and people rightly expect it to be flown above UK Government buildings. This guidance will ensure that happens every day … as a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us.’ The ‘rightly expect’ bit was obviously one of the key phrases the children were required to learn before they were allowed out to play, as the announcement also quotes Local Government Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP saying: ‘Our nation’s flag is a symbol of liberty, unity and freedom that creates a shared sense of civic pride. People rightly expect to see the Union Flag flying high on civic and Government buildings up and down the country, as a sign of our local and national identity.’ Lord Nelson missed a trick when he forgot to include the ‘rightly’ in ‘England rightly expects every man to do his duty.’ The honesty of Jenrick’s recognition that the nation’s flag might at best be creating ‘civic’ rather than national pride was probably inadvertent: it certainly won’t have been in the script.
If the rash of flags really is intended as a proud reminder of the totality of our history, it would suggest that selective amnesia needs to be factored into the equation as one of the more worrying side-effects of whatever it was that brought on the rash. It is difficult to believe, even of our current cabinet of the clueless, that the likes of Dowden and Jenrick could really be proud, by way of example, of the deaths of the women and children in the Anglo-Boer war concentration camps in 1901-2, the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, the Hola detention camp massacre in 1959, and Bloody Sunday in 1972, to mention just four of the many moments of our relatively recent history that vanishingly few people can feel proud of.
Flags are a serious business, under no circumstances to be laughed about, particularly not by our revered national broadcaster. The BBC recently shame-facedly reported that BBC Breakfast presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty had to be ‘spoken to’ following complaints after the former had gently mocked Robert Jenrick’s flag at the end of an interview: ‘I think your flag is not up to standard size, government interview measurements. I think it’s just a little bit small, but that’s your department really.’** Another BBC presenter, Huw Edwards, was apparently made to remove a tweet of the Welsh flag that poked fun at the row over the union jack. And Tim Davie, the Director-General of the BBC, who will probably have done the talking to Stayt and been responsible for the pressuring of Edwards, was himself recently castigated by a Tory MP, James Wild, who is reported to have told Davie that his constituents would “expect to see more than one flag” in the BBC’s 268-page Annual Report. ***** It has not as yet, however, been made mandatory to hug the Union jack in the way the immediately past President of the USA was sometimes wont to hug the Star Spangled Banner.
Anyone who reacts with a measure of cynicism to the outbreak of a rash of flags will find him or herself in extensive, and often very good, company. Given Jenrick’s own history of dodgy dealing with Richard Desmond (see my entry on 28th June), and the corruption around the PPE and Test and Trace contracts, Bill Moyer’s cautionary note is salutary: ‘They’re counting on your patriotism to distract you from their plunder. They’re counting on you to be standing at attention with your hand over your heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, while they pick your pocket!’ David Lloyd George’s comment, ‘The man who tries to make the flag an object of a single party is a greater traitor to that flag than any man who fires at it,’ would serve as a suitable put-down of the Tories’ transparent attempts to outdo Labour where the size of their respective patriotisms is concerned. As for being proud of the totality of our history, particularly such darker corners of our history as those listed earlier, Howard Zinn put it very well when he said: ‘There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.’ Johnson and company might also do well to think both about Laurence Peter’s aphorism, ‘The man who is always waving the flag usually waives what it stands for,’ and Arundhati Roy’s, ‘Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.’ But perhaps the most pertinent comment of all in view of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill I wrote about on April 5th is the warning about America attributed to Sinclair Lewis, adapted for our own country: ‘When fascism comes to the United Kingdom, it will come wrapped in the Union Jack.’
Last week saw country-wide protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through the Committee Stage in Parliament that I wrote about on 19th March. That’s the one that envisages a ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest, which has been described by lawyers as ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’ The Bill hasn’t been passed yet, but even so it would appear to have given the Metropolitan Police the confidence to feel that they now have free rein where protests are concerned. On Saturday night two legal observers from Black Protest Legal Support, who were observing a protest in London, were detained by the police who were, it is reported, perfectly happy to acknowledge their status as observers: ‘Both people arrested were acting as legal observers at the protest.’*
All through the last thirty-five years of apartheid in South Africa, starting in 1956, the Black Sash – described by Nelson Mandela on his eventual release from prison as ‘the conscience of white South Africa’– held protest stands and marches to protest against the vicious cruelties of apartheid. Protest stands were held on Saturday mornings in Pietermaritzburg through the 1970s and 1980s during which the members of the Sash, wearing their black sashes to symbolise the death of the constitution, would stand on the pavement of the main street holding their placards, having to stand well apart from each other to avoid infringing one or another of apartheid’s draconian anti-protest laws, most notably the Riotous Assemblies Act. Isolated as they were, the women were easy targets for Security Branch intimidation as well as for abuse from apartheid-supporting white passers-by, so two or three men, of which I was sometimes one, were always asked to monitor the protests. The police knew who we were, and knew we were monitoring their behaviour at the protests, but no one was ever arrested merely for observing one of the protests.
Saturday’s arrests of two observers followed the arrests of four others from the same organisation on March 16thwhich had already prompted Liberty to bring legal action against the Metropolitan Police. Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty responded to Saturday’s arrests by saying: ‘Liberty is already taking legal action against the Met for previous unlawful arrests of legal observers. Continuing to arrest independent monitors is a scandalous attack on the right to protest, and demonstrates exactly why people are taking to the streets against the government’s plans to give the police even more powers.’
The same week saw our Home Office issuing a press release in which our honourable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is quoted, according to a Microsoft News report, as stating that modern slavery safeguards are being ‘rampantly abused’. The press release, we are told, claims that there have been ‘major increases’ in ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers […] taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards’ in order to prevent their removal and enable them to stay in the UK.** No evidence of these ‘major increases’, let alone any evidence of an increase in failed asylum applications, is given. A group of barristers is reported to have submitted a complaint to the Home Office accusing it of misleading the public on immigration issues in the UK in breach of the civil service code by, among other things, equating ‘child rapists’ with ‘failed asylum seekers’, and in the process of contravening core values in the civil service code: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. No surprise there where Patel is concerned.
The coordinator of the barristers’ complaint, Rudolph Spurling, said Patel’s gratuitous attacks against the asylum system were particularly concerning in view of the new immigration plan she launched a few days later. He added: ‘Lumping in failed asylum seekers with “child rapists” and “people who pose a threat to our national security and serious criminals” was an egregious attempt to demonise people who’ve not been shown to pose any danger to the public. Furthermore, there was no attempt to justify the rhetoric with relevant statistics.’ One of the more striking features of the new immigration plan is its prioritising of the way in which asylum seekers arrive in the UK over the merit or otherwise of their claims for asylum.
Last week also saw a report in The Independent revealing that the Home Office is intending to carry on until September keeping to the same high-density concentration of asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent that resulted in almost 200 people being infected with Covid-19 in January.*** This is in spite of a report by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group on 20 January that stated that there were ‘too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection’, and in spite of, to quote May Bulman’s report, ‘an assessment of the site by the government’s immigration watchdog last month [which] found that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier had not complied with official health and safety guidance and that a large-scale outbreak had been “virtually inevitable.”’ A representative of the Kent Refugee Action Network is quoted as saying that it is ‘horrific’ that vulnerable asylum seekers are being ‘packed into entirely inappropriate communal living situations against the advice of PHE [Public Health England].’ Given their vulnerability, it is almost certain that some of the asylum-seekers will have died as a result of contracting Covid at the Barracks. I haven’t been able to establish how many, but it is all too painfully obvious that the Home Office wouldn’t care how many, and assumes that the rest of us won’t care either.
Outlaw the democratic right to protest; arrest those who are charged with monitoring police behaviour; demonise and ‘other’ particular groups in society who are too weak and vulnerable to resist; create a climate in which the general population doesn’t care what happens to those who are being demonised. That is the line at the end of which, if people allow it to be built, the concentration camps lie in wait.**
So March slips seamlessly into April and the news gets its annual injection of quirkiness. One story that caught my attention was the one about a bronze statue of Dominic Cummings, designed by a Scandanavian sculptor called Olof Prial, that is to be erected outside the opticians in Barnard’s Castle where Cummings went to test his eyes. Another was the story about a ten-person government commission – the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities – that is said to have reported after the better part of a year that, where race is concerned, the UK ‘should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries’ because, according to its chair, Tony Sewell, while there is ‘anecdotal evidence of racism’ in UK, the commission could find no ‘evidence of actual institutional racism’. People who spent any time at all opposing apartheid in South Africa will have been mightily relieved to discover that they have came to the right place. Provided, of course, that they haven’t noticed today’s date.
Nobody should be particularly surprised at the findings of the Commission’s 258 page report, which was apparently completed several months ago (and which, beyond the Foreword and Introduction, I have to confess to not having read in its entirety). Boris Johnson signalled its outcome very clearly when he set it up. Its job, he said, would be to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.’ As long as we ‘change the narrative’ and stop people feeling they are victimised and discriminated against, all will be well and victimisation and discrimination will disappear out of the window. Johnson apparently made sure of the desired outcome of the review by getting Munira Mirza, the Director of the No 10 Policy Unit who is on record as saying that institutional racism is ‘a perception more than a reality’, to hand-pick the members of the Commission. Perhaps the otherwise unaccountable delay in the report’s publication until April Fool’s Eve can be attributed to the same penchant for a jolly jape as Johnson’s racist references to, among other people, ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘water-melon smiles’.
We cannot, surely, be expected to believe that the arrival on the scene of an overtly racist prime minister will have miraculously purged our society of the institutional racism identified by so many previous reports. Racism is now, Sewell’s Foreword suggests, just an unpleasant historical memory: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.’ This miraculous change must have happened in the four years since David Lammy produced his 2017 Independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.*
Lammy’s review revealed that young black people were nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, while the proportion of British and minority ethnic (BAME) youth prisoners rose from 25% to 41% in the ten years between 2006 and 2016. Perhaps even more startling in view of what one knows about the penal system in the USA is the fact that while the 13% of the US population who are black accounted for a striking 35% of the prison population in that country, here the 3% of our population who are black accounted for 12% of the prison population, proportionally almost double the US’s notorious black imprisonment prison rate. Lammy’s 2017 figures showed that for every 100 white men convicted of public order offences here there were 494 BAME convictions. For every 100 white men convicted, the equivalent BAME conviction figures for criminal damage and arson, possession of weapons, drug offences, theft, violence against the person and sexual offences were 156, 144, 127, 121, 119 and 118 respectively. In every instance the number of black men convicted was, proportionately, significantly higher than the number of white men.
The Home Office’s own figures show that In 2018/2019 Black people were more than five times as likely to have force used against them by police as White people, and were subject to the use of Tasers at almost eight times the rate of White people.** Other figures show that there are twice as many BAME deaths in custody as a result of restraint, and twice as many involving the use of force, as for other groups. So much for institutional racism being ‘a perception more than a reality’ – unless, of course, that miraculous transformation has indeed come about in a couple of years. The outrage with which the Review report has been greeted by members of the BAME community would suggest that not to be the case.
As seems now to be the Downing Street custom, snippets of the report were allowed to leak out in advance. One of the extracts that has occasioned the greatest consternation is one that manages to find a silver lining to the grotesque history of slavery: ‘There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain (sic).’ This cultural transformation is clearly seen as a positive benefit. Crudely put, the route of the perceived ‘progress’ appears to boil down to: lift the African out of the heart of darkness in Africa, transport him across the Atlantic and subject him to the purifying fire of slavery, and, hey presto! you have your ‘re-modelled African/Britain’, whatever that may be. Didn’t any of the ten members of the commission pause even for a moment to call out the assumption of racial superiority underlying this bizarre attribution of a ‘silver lining’ to slavery? In what respect, precisely, is the ‘re-modelled African’, now apparently fit to live in Britain, superior to his antecedents from, say, the empires of Songhai or Mali in West Africa?
When Diane Abbott, the former shadow Home Secretary, heard that Munira Mirza was going to be involved in selecting the commissioners, she is reported as having said: ‘A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.’ Boris Johnson’s supposedly ‘independent’ Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities seems by all account to have done its very best to do the job he wanted it to do. It has tried to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’. But I suspect that Johnson is already wishing that the report really had been ‘dead on arrival.’ It is very much alive and kicking and has clearly already succeeded in gravely exacerbating a great many people’s sense of victimisation and discrimination. Even on April Fools Day it is difficult to believe that Boris Johnson, even Boris Johnson, could manage to shoot himself in the foot quite so crassly.
As the implications of the abrupt cut in foreign aid I wrote about in my last entry become more starkly apparent, it is worth looking at some of those implications for development programmes in Africa, in particular, in a bit more detail. It is worth repeating that Boris Johnson, who is in the habit of pontificating about what the British public thinks and wants, claims that the public would think that in cutting overseas aid the government has its ‘priorities right’. In his terms, the public would rather see their taxpayers’ money being spent on nuclear warheads than on people he is on record as having referred to as ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’. ‘Foreign aid’ is an abstract concept that is unlikely to hold much attraction for a public continually exposed to a xenophobic narrative from right-wing media inclined to suggest that foreign aid going to Africa is always in danger of being siphoned off into the bank balances of corrupt officialdom. How richly ironic that is when one considers the extent to which our ‘straitened circumstances’ are at least partly due to the siphoning off of our taxpayers’ money into private bank balances via the corrupt handing out of billions of pounds worth of PPE and Test and Trace contracts to our own government’s chums.
Yesterday’s The Observer, carried a brief report titled ‘”Brutal” cuts on overseas aid put African science projects in peril’  from its Science Editor, Robin McKie, which provides a bit of granularity to the ‘Foreign Aid’ catch-all, and hints at some of the shock and devastation the arbitrary decision has occasioned. A scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Anita Etale from Rwanda, who had spent two years putting together a team of researchers to help her develop a way of purifying contaminated water using maize and sugarcane stubble, had been promised the funding to develop a prototype but has now had the funding abruptly cancelled. She told The Observer that her reaction ‘was one of bitter disappointment, grief and disbelief that Britain could do something this brutal.’ Johnson, and supposedly the British public, apparently think that nuclear warheads are a better investment than clean water for African children.
Similarly, a scientist at the University of Cape Town, Chris Trisos, the outcomes of whose work on how climate change will affect different species have been published in the highly prestigious journal Nature, has had his grant abruptly terminated for a new project to study how climate change will affect wild harvested food plants. ‘In Africa’, Trisos is reported as saying, ‘millions of people rely on picking wild fruits and berries, but we know very little about how climate change might affect this essential nutrition source.’ When Trisos heard that his grant had been axed he said ‘I felt it like a physical blow when I was told. My group’s future now looks very uncertain.’ So not only are nuclear warheads a better investment than clean water, they are also a better investment than food sources. Someone needs to ask Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the other xenophobes in our government what they think is going to happen to the pressures of population migration if the supply of fresh food and uncontaminated water is allowed to dry up in Africa.
But research on water purification and research on the extent to which wild plants can survive climate change are still somewhat abstract concepts, even when one hears about the devastation that the principal investigators feel when they hear that their research funding has suddenly been terminated without warning. The principal investigators won’t be the only people affected. Research teams will have been built up; countless hours will have been devoted to producing and submitting research proposals; administrators will have been employed; Human Resources managers will have the painfully difficult job of making colleagues redundant. Researchers all too often have to rely on being able to bring in successive short-term research contracts – a sophisticated kind of hand-to-mouth existence without the job security afforded by tenured university positions. The highs of getting research grants that will keep their research teams going are very high; by the same token the lows of having livelihoods put in jeopardy by the last-minute withdrawal of promised funding are very low. The research projects for which the grants were funded have to be to be important and extremely well motivated: competition is strong and only the best projects have any chance of being funded. The damage done to individuals, and the damage done to research development in developing countries is incalculable. But why would our supremely insular Tory government worry about any of that?
The Observer article reports Richard Catlow, the Royal Society’s foreign secretary, as saying: ‘The cuts we were forced to make have been brutal. We have seriously damaged our reputation as trusted partners in future collaborations. The relationships that we have built up have been badly and, I fear, permanently weakened.’ No surprise there: if our proudly sovereign Brexity nation has demonstrated anything at all over the past year it is that we don’t give a damn about how badly and how permanently we trash our reputation as trusted partners and turn our sovereign backs on long-standing relationships.
If anyone was still wondering what Brexit was all about, the last couple of weeks have provided some very clear pointers, not the least of which was Boris Johnson’s revealing off-the-cuff attribution of the success of the Covid-19 vaccine programme to ‘greed’ and ‘capitalism’ in a Zoom talk to Conservative backbenchers. Astra-Zeneca is manufacturing the vaccine at cost, unlike the producers of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as Johnson knows full well, but greed and capitalism have good cause to float around near the frothy surface of Johnson’s mind. What the mythical ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ of the Brexit rhetoric would appear to have been about was the freedom to break international agreements, as we saw so clearly with the Northern Ireland agreement, and ignore our obligations under international treaties. Both of which offer plenty of scope for capitalist greed.
Last week saw the publication of The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, a pointer to what Johnson means by ‘Global Britain’, one ofwhose more noteworthy proposals is for a 40% increase from 180 to 260 in the UK’s stock of nuclear warheads. We apparently need to do this in the face of an ‘evolving security environment’ and a ‘developing range of technological and doctrinal threats.’ Dropping a hydrogen bomb on them has apparently become the best way to see off doctrinal threats. The review explains that “A minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, assigned to the defence of Nato, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our allies.” Our current stockpile would give us the capacity to wipe out 1,200 Hiroshimas, but that is apparently not enough. We are asked to believe that our deterrent won’t be ‘credible’ until we can wipe out more than 1,700 Hiroshimas.
Stewart McDonald’s response, in his capacity as the Scottish National Party’s defence spokesman, summed it up very well: “For the prime minister to stand up and champion the international rules-based system before announcing in the same breath that the UK plans to violate its commitments to the international treaty on non-proliferation beggars belief.” David Cullen, the director of the Nuclear Information Service, added: “The UK has repeatedly pointed to its reducing warhead stockpile as evidence that it is fulfilling its legal duties under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. If they are tearing up decades of progress in reducing numbers, it will be a slap in the face to the 190 other members of the treaty, and will be regarded as a shocking breach of faith.” But Brexit Britain isn’t going to get prissy about a little thing like a breach of faith, provided, of course, that it is its own breach of faith.
Last week also saw confirmation that, as the head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs pithily put it, UK Ministers have decided to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen in an act that will see tens of thousands die and damage the UK’s global influence. Mark Lowcock went on to describe what the UK was doing as ‘an act of medium and longer term self-harm, and all for saving what is actually – in the great scheme of things at the moment – a relatively small amount of money.’ The UK’s aid to Yemen, much of which is used to address issues resulting from the bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, with the help of weapons the UK government refuses to stop selling to Saudi Arabia, is being cut by 47% to £87m. The Guardian tells us that ‘Boris Johnson has said the decision is due to the “current straitened circumstances” caused by the pandemic and has insisted the public would think the government had its “priorities right”.’ So the British public would, in Johnson’s view, not mind that, in Lowcock’s words again, ‘There is no getting away from the fact that it will have the effect of large scale loss of life and the piling on of misery in lots of places.’ The government is legally bound to spend 0.7% of the national budget on foreign aid, so its decision to cut that to 0.5% needs the approval of parliament, but the government knows that even its own backbenchers will recognise the immorality and inhumanity of what it is doing, so it is refusing to put it to parliament on the pretext that the reduction is only temporary. The introduction of income tax in 1799 was only a temporary measure to help fund the cost of the Napoleonic wars; it is still with us.
The ‘lots of places’ where the misery will be piled on include Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Libya and Nigeria whose aid packages are due to be cut by 60%, 59%, 67%, 63% and 58% respectively. The UK has up to now enjoyed an international reputation for its support for international development, but then it also had a reputation for standing by its international agreements. The entirely justified damage this mean-minded cut in foreign aid will do to our international reputation and influence is incalculable. It is also extraordinarily short-sighted. At a time when Priti Patel is flailing around trying to dream up ever more fascistic ways of ignoring another set of our international obligations and stopping asylum seekers who are legally entitled to seek refuge on our shores from reaching us, Lawcock points to some of the implications of what would happen if other countries decided to follow the UK’s deplorable example on the aid front: ‘The result would be much more loss of life and misery, additional instability and fragility, and more substantial problems in these hotspots, which, we know, from bitter experience, have a tendency to spread and create their own bad dynamics, with wider international consequences, including to countries like the UK.’ The best way of stopping asylum seekers arriving in Kent in small boats is to make life in their own countries livable.
So the aid budget is being slashed because of our present ‘straightened circumstances’; and NHS staff in England are being offered a derisory 1% salary increase, 25% of what is being offered in Scotland, ‘because we can’t afford more’. Yet we can afford to enlarge our almost entirely useless stockpile of nuclear weapons (when it comes to deterrents, it that were what is at issue, I would have thought one Hiroshima was quite enough), and to waste tens of billions of pounds on a still deeply unimpressive Test and Trace programme and on wasteful PPE contracts and inefficient lateral-flow tests. Johnson’s telltale invocation of capitalism and greed provides the likely answer. Austerity has returned to most public sector salaries, which are frozen, and we can only afford 1% for the nurses, because there is nothing whatever to be had by way of immediate pay-back. Weapons manufacture, on the other hand, tends to pay handsome dividends, as no doubt do PPE and the private sector companies into whose eager hands the Test and Trace contracts were thrust. If we are greedy enough, and can identify where the dividends will come from, we can learn to stop worrying and learn to love almost anything.
Today is the anniversary of the imposition of the first lockdown in the UK and we are being told that it is an opportunity to pause, reflect and remember. By the official count, which is dutifully included in the BBC news-bulletins every day, 126,172 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. Anyone trying to light 126,172 candles or tea lights in memory is likely to find the first one going out long before the last one has been lit. The number of people whose death certificates indicate that they have died from Covid-related causes, is over 146,000. Nobody has counted the number of people who might be still alive had they not wanted to avoid going anywhere near a potentially Covid-infected Accident and Emergency Department; had they been able to get to see – rather than merely talk to – a GP; or had their treatment for cancer or other diseases not had to be postponed or paused because the hospitals were full of Covid patients.
Researchers in the United States have come to the conclusion that every Covid-19 death leaves 8.9 grieving family members. Even making allowance for somewhat different family demographics, that statistic points towards the huge weight of grief the UK has to reflect on. My own extended family, being white, middle-class, and not yet dependent on care-homes, has been lucky; all too many others have not. So, rather than reflecting on the lives and deaths of family members and friends, as so many people will be doing today, reflection turns to causes and effects, to questions about what might have been. Questions our government would very much rather leave for another day.
How different might it have been had we had Jacinda Ardern at the helm, with her common sense and compassion, instead of Boris Johnson who boasted about shaking Covid-19 patients’ hands and didn’t start taking the pandemic seriously until he had nearly died from it himself? When it comes to quarantining, New Zealand has the signal advantage of being an island nation with complete control of its borders. But so, of course, is Great Britain, which could have locked itself down nationally as well as domestically in a way the countries on the European mainland couldn’t. If it were to be argued that New Zealand has the advantage of being miles from anywhere, whereas UK is inextricably linked to a continent not much more than twenty miles away, one might reflect that Covid-19 timed itself to arrive very shortly after the UK had supposedly cast off the shackles of its ties with the rest of Europe and become a sovereign island nation supposedly in full control of its own destiny.
Jacinda Ardern’s government’s success in keeping Covid-19 at bay has no doubt been helped by her own practicality, untainted with Johnson’s compulsive ‘boosterism’, and by the absence of a significant cohort of libertarians on her back-benches motivated by commercial rather than public health interests. New Zealand also had the advantage of not going into the Covid-19 pandemic suffering from a decade of ideologically driven austerity and anti-immigrant sentiment which had depleted the capacity of the National Health Service, most obviously by allowing stocks of PPE to dwindle and decay, and by discouraging the recruitment of NHS staff, most notably of nurses. That same ideology then dictated that the success-critical Test and Trace system be kept out of the hands of public health and farmed out, at vast cost, to private sector companies that still, a year later, haven’t got on top of what is needed.
It is impossible to know how many of those 146,000 lives might have been saved had we had a serious and even half-competent Prime Minister, and a cabinet whose qualification for membership extended beyond thinking that Brexit was a good idea. It is equally impossible to know how many lives have been blighted by those deaths; how badly the lives of many of those who survived Covid-19 have been, and will continue to be, blighted by long Covid; how many people’s mental health has been damaged by repeated lockdowns; and how badly the nation’s education has been affected by a year of on-and-off home-schooling. One thing we have not been short of over the past year is statistics. One of the more striking ones to appear today came from the Health Foundation, which has calculated, on the basis that each victim lost an average of 10 years of life when they died, that a total of 1.5 million years – yes, years – of potential life has been lost to the UK as a result of the pandemic: 825,000 years for men, compared to 670,000 years for women. Dr Jennifer Dixon, the CEO of the Health Foundation, fleshed out the bald statistics: ‘Ten years is quite a lot of Christmases that you might have had with your relative or friend.’
There will be a great deal to reflect on as we stand on our doorsteps this evening holding lighted candles, as we have been requested to do. There won’t be any banging of pots and pans this time, no clapping and cheering for the front-line workers. Just silent reflection.
The past few days have been largely taken up with the preparation for, and time spent in, interviewing short-listed applicants for the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights Protective Fellowship Scheme for human rights defenders ‘at risk’, and the selection process for another cohort of ‘Arctivist’ projects bringing artists and activists together from a range of different countries around the world to produce artistic responses to the Covid-19 pandemic and the different ways in which authoritarian governments have exploited the pandemic as an excuse for further repression.
Brazil, India, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Thailand, El Salvador, Uganda, Mexico, China, Belarus, Malawi, Indonesia….the list of repressive countries from where the arctivist bids come goes on and on, and the contextual accounts of the different ways in which the various states have been taking advantage of the pandemic to abuse their citizens makes for depressing reading. The interviews with the sometimes visibly stressed human rights defenders are often harrowing: they are all, by definition, at risk – usually from the State, or surrogates who do the State’s extrajudicial killings on its behalf, but in one case from Islamist extremists. One wishes one could find the funding to bring them all to York to take courses in cyber- and other security, and to get them away from the dangers they face, if only for six months. Six of the nine human rights defenders we interviewed were women, two from the Far East, two from Central and South America, one from the Middle East and one from North Africa, all doing really important work. One, who had had to flee her own country to avoid being killed, leaving her two children behind with her parents and was desperate to find somewhere to go where she could be reunited with her children, had to be turned down for a Fellowship because she would have been an asylum-risk and could have put the university’s license to recruit international students at risk. The UK State doesn’t like asylum seekers.
Throughout the arctivist selection meeting, and all six, hour-long, interviews this week, the image of a face-masked young woman forced down on the ground, being leant on and handcuffed by two male policemen, hovered uncomfortably at the back of my mind. She had made the mistake of attending a vigil in memory of another young woman who had been kidnapped and murdered by a man, who just happened to be a policeman. The woman in the photograph above had been thrown to the ground and handcuffed because the vigil was contravening the Covid-19 regulations. The courts had ruled that protests per se are not illegal, but this one was illegal because the police commanders had refused to meet the organisers to discuss how it might be possible to hold a vigil that didn’t contravene the Covid-19 regulations.
I also found myself wondering where – China? Brazil? – I would find the closest parallel to a repressive government that would like to make the maximum ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest more draconian than the usual penalty for rape. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that is currently being rushed through our Parliament has provoked more than 700 UK legal academics into writing a letter to Boris Johnson condemning the bill’s attack on the democratic right to protest and warning of ‘an alarming extension of state control over legal assembly’, and ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’ * Where else in the world, for that matter – Zimbabwe? Belarus? the Philippines? – would a government want to make provision for its authoritarian home secretary to bypass parliament in the process of arbitrarily altering the definition of behaviour for which people could be prosecuted? As Dr Joanna Gilmore, the coordinator of the letter, put it: ‘It is a mark of concern not only about the bill’s fundamental attack on the right to protest peacefully – which is an absolute right in any democracy – but also about the speed at which this is being rushed through, in the context of a pandemic and without proper consultation.’ It isn’t only the authoritarian governments of third-world countries that are taking advantage of the pandemic to hurry through repressive anti-democratic legislation. I very much doubt that if the 700 signatories had addressed their letter to Father Christmas it could have been any more of a waste of their time.
What the vigil was actually about is in danger of being lost in the resulting brouhaha. The family and friends of Sarah Everard are grieving for a young woman snatched off our streets and murdered. That has brought to the surface the fears of so many women as they go nervously about their daily lives, and it has focussed our national consciousness, however fleetingly, on what can be done to make women safer and enable them to feel safer. As we think of Sarah Everard’s family and friends in their grief, we should spare a thought also for the family and friends of Claudia Lawrence, who worked at the University of York and was snatched from our streets on her way to work twelve years ago. Yesterday was the anniversary of her disappearance. Her father, Peter, who tried tirelessly to find out what had happened to his daughter, died last month without ever getting an answer to the question that had preoccupied him all through the last tortured years of his life. One can only hope he has found peace at last.
Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan and Harry, aired on ITV on Monday evening, has been described as a ‘bombshell interview’ whose ‘shockwaves swept around the world’. The Daily Mail, our representative tabloid for the day, talks about ‘a string of incendiary accusations unleashed by Harry and wife Meghan’ and tells us that Buckingham Palace has been ‘paralysed with horror and dismay as Prince Harry stands accused of blowing up his family with his bombshell interview.’ And it was apparently no ordinary bombshell: ‘palace insiders’, we are told, described a mood of ‘intense personal shock and sadness’ that the prince had pressed the ‘nuclear button on his own family … people are just reeling.’ * Paralysed people ‘reeling with shock’ after being hit by a nuclear explosion whose shockwaves have swept around the world should probably take time off to be thankful that they have enough life left in them to do their reeling.
Apart from the implication that security had been withdrawn from Harry and Meghan’s family, and that Archie had been denied a title, on racial grounds – hinted at in particular via a reported conversation with an unnamed royal who had speculated on the shade of darkness of the unborn baby Archie – the most telling ‘bombshell’ was perhaps Meghan’s revelation that she had become suicidal and sought help from Buckingham Palace, but had been refused. Almost submerged among the more striking claims was the assertion that there exists an ‘invisible contract’ between the royals and the tabloids informally stipulating favourable press in exchange for access.** If that is true, and there is no reason whatever to suppose that it might not be, one can only assume that, for whatever reason (and one can guess), Meghan Markle was not regarded as coming under the terms of that invisible contract.
There can be no question that the Press’s treatment of Meghan Markle has been one of the principal determining factors in this whole sorry saga. But, with the notable exception of today’s excellent editorial in The Independent,*** even the very few inhabitants of the more enlightened wing of the Press’s unstately home seem reluctant to acknowledge this. Sunday’s The Observer (7/3/21), for example, carried three substantial articles about the interview. In the first, by Vanessa Thorpe (p.5), nothing whatever is said about the press; the second, by Andrew Gumbel (pp.40-1), talks about them ‘feeling’ they [Harry and Meghan] had gone to USA ‘with some assurance that they wouldn’t be hounded by the paparazzi the way they felt they were’, and thereby calls into question whether they really were hounded by the paparazzi or simply ‘felt they were’; the third, a carping article by Catherine Bennett titled ‘In the battle of Meghan versus the Firm, who do we cheer on? How about neither…’(p.49), makes very fleeting reference in passing to ‘when Meghan was herself bullied by the UK press’ but doesn’t bother to linger on that insight.
In this instance one had to look to David Olusoga, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday to get to the nub of the issue where Harry and Meghan were concerned: ‘‘This is the story of a black princess, a moment when Britain projected this image around the world and this was the opportunity for us to become the nation we pretend we are…. I’m interested in the fact that we didn’t. We allowed our press to hound this woman and hound her family and it says something about us. And the Royal Family are just another institution of this country, and in some ways these issues reflect the wider country. It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation’. The BBC, seeing the Tory private sector fetishists in full cry in its rear-view mirror, intent on eviscerating it to get at its licence fee, inevitably felt it had to ‘balance’ Olusoga’s incisiveness by inviting no less an authority of Britain and the Royal Family than Meghan’s estranged father Thomas Markle to share his expertise with us: ‘I have great respect for the royals and I don’t think the British royal family are racist at all. I don’t think the British are racist.’ So that is settled then.
Olusoga’s repetition of ‘hounding’ allows the full force of the metaphor to come through: in the ‘tally ho!’ world shared by both the tabloid press and traditional fox-hunting the quarry is regarded as vermin, ‘fair game’, onto which the hounds – whether fox-hounds or news-hounds – can be set, with the goal being to tear the quarry to shreds, either literally or metaphorically. Harry had seen what happened to his mother who was, as nearly literally as it is possible to get, hounded to her death in an underpass in Paris – hunted down by the paparazzi. When he saw the same thing in danger of happening to his wife he would have had to be insane not to want to find a way to protect her from the hounds.
Only one person was explicitly exonerated during the interview from complicity in ‘The Firm’s’, or ‘Buckingham Palace’s’, stiff-upper-lipped refusal to take Meghan and Harry’s plight seriously and defend them against the hounds. That one person was the Queen herself. It was obviously not coincidental that news of the impending Oprah Winfrey interview galvanized the rest of ‘the PaIace’, by contrast, into a very belated inquiry into allegations that Meghan had herself bullied members royal staff. It was very clear from the interview that there was a mutual and very genuine warmth and fondness between the Queen, Meghan and her grandson, and that warmth is reflected in the Queen’s public response to the interview: ‘The whole family is saddened to learn the full extent of how challenging the last few years have been for Harry and Meghan. The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. Whilst some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately. Harry, Meghan and Archie will always be much-loved family members.’
With depressing predictability, Britain’s gutter-press, whose excretions just happen to be the printed media’s best sellers, seized on five words from the 60 word statement: ‘Whilst some recollections may vary…’ This they interpret as a covert assertion that Meghan was lying through her teeth, effectively endorsing the awful Piers Morgan’s ‘Pinocchio Princess’ label for Meghan. The Daily Mail’s online headline could not be a starker contrast to the Queen’s restraint: ‘PIERS MORGAN: Meghan and Harry’s nauseating two-hour Oprah whine-athon was a disgraceful diatribe of cynical race-baiting propaganda designed to damage the Queen as her husband lies in hospital – and destroy the Monarchy.’ *** Whatever else eventuates from the interview one good outcome has been Morgan’s unlamented departure from ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
Piers Morgan was not about to go quietly and, as is the wont of the more contemptible tabloids, hid behind ‘freedom of speech’ as the catch-all weapon of his defence: “I believe in freedom of speech, I believe in the right to be allowed to have an opinion…. If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly held opinion about Meghan Markle and that diatribe of bilge that she came out with in that interview, so be it.”**** His noble act of falling on his, now rather tarnished, sword as a martyr to the cause of freedom of speech, which seems to have pre-empted his being fired by yet another employer, brings an appropriate end to this episode of his own series of diatribes of bilge. Unfortunately it won’t be the last of the series.
All of which brings me back to David Olusoga: ‘It isn’t just about the royal family; it is about us as a nation.’ Exactly so. The likes of Piers Morgan can get away with expressing their repugnant opinions because a sufficiently large section of the nation apparently has sufficient thirst for the diatribes of bilge to keep newspapers in business that are often a shameful national embarrassment. Their diatribes feed off and indirectly fuel an undercurrent of racism and xenophobia. Princess Diana was hounded to her death; Harry is obviously right, that cannot be allowed to happen to Meghan, and if it takes living in California to ensure that doesn’t happen, so be it. Rather than cleaning up the sewage by closing down the offending tabloids, to a crescendo of whines about ‘freedom of speech’, the nation should follow the excellent lead set by the population of Liverpool who have boycotted The Sun ever since its appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. If nobody buys the bilge, the offending tabloids won’t survive, and the nation will be a lot cleaner and healthier. But I’m not holding my breath.
A year under lockdown isn’t an essential prerequisite for spending a Friday evening engaging, in our instance virtually, in the slightly whacky pursuit of going wassailing in the depths of rural Somerset, but it probably helps. There was I, in my ignorance of pagan British customs, thinking that wassailing merely involved going around in groups from house to house in the village around Christmas time, or presumably the winter solstice in pagan times, and getting drunk with the assistance of a wassail cup full of ale or cider while singing wassailing songs that, in their less bawdy versions, developed into carols. While that wasn’t wrong, it was a limited understanding. Wassailing in early Spring has some similarities, but is dedicated to the necessary process of waking up the apple trees and encouraging them to get on with the serious business of producing apples.
Our route to our wassailing venue, The Newt, a country estate in Somerset (https://thenewtinsomerset.com – reminiscent in this context of the line from the witches’ chant in Macbeth, ‘Eye of newt and toe of frog’, was improbably circuitous. We found our way there via Babylonstoren (https://babylonstoren.com), one of the older Cape Dutch manor houses, dating back to 1777, in the Drakenstein Valley near Franschoek in the Western Cape. Apart from anything else, Babylonstoren has magnificent gardens, one of the finest collections of clivias in the world, makes outstanding wines, and is one of our favourite visiting spots when we are in Cape Town. Susan, who has a way of finding such things out, discovered that The Newt is the UK’s distribution point for Wines from Babylonstoren, kept an eye on their website and discovered that the estate has been finding creative ways of generating income during lockdown. The first of these she indulged in was a blood-orange marmalade making kit and on-line cooking session: a large box arrived on our doorstep with eight jam jars, a couple of pounds of oranges, all the other ingredients, and the recipes for both some excellent marmalade and some equally good blood-orange curd.
Such was the success of the marmalade and curd that the invitation to invest in the necessary equipment for a hearty wassail was irresistible. A large box duly appeared on the doorstep earlier in the week containing two bottles of Somerset dry cider, two bottles of apple-juice, a jam bottle full of spices, two magnificent apples, two wooden spoons and two tin-mugs. We were told to expect ‘an evening of light fighting darkness – with explosive energy from English Civil War cannon to banish ne’er-do-well spirits, followed by encouragement of benevolent spirits through song, revelry and cyder quaffing.’
Having duly equipped ourselves with two large mugs of mulled cider for the quaffing bit, not, I hasten to add, the tin mugs used for waking apple trees, we sat down to watch the unfolding of the ritual at the appointed time on Friday evening. This began with the Wassail King calling the assembled company, decked out in their best Elizabethan costumes, to join him in a torch-lit procession down to the orchard. ‘Waes hael!’ the King shouted, ‘be in good health!’; in reply to which his followers all replied ‘waes hael!’ in their turn and kept shouting ‘waes hael!’ sporadically throughout the rest of the ritual. I assumed that the reason they didn’t reply with the more traditional Anglo Saxon ‘drink hael!’ – which means, predictably enough, ‘drink well!’ – was out of sensibility towards younger viewers, as the evening was still young.
Having gathered round the chosen tree, usually the oldest in the orchard (presumably on the assumption that the older you are the more it takes to wake you), pieces of toast were placed in the branches to attract robins, well known to be the guardians of the orchard, and a libation of cider was poured by way of blessing on the roots of the tree. At that point a cacophony of noise was emitted by the assembled company, whose clattering of pots and pans and shouting of more ‘wassails’ must have been enough to put the frighteners on any lingering evil spirits and wake the chosen apple tree and all the others in the orchard from their winter sleep. Just in case the shouting and the clamour of kitchen utensils hadn’t been enough to waken the deeper sleepers among the apple trees, the ceremony closed with the firing of the aforesaid civil war cannons, cleverly synchronised with the distant bursting of fireworks, and a very impressive fireworks display that should have been enough to wake the apple trees for miles around.
Having refrained from joining in the random clattering of kitchen utensils out of consideration for our neighbours, I now find myself in something of a quandary. I am hoping that the televised noise from Somerset might have woken the Lord Lambourne in our garden at home, but we now have two unused wooden spoons and two tin mugs specially designated for the waking up of apple trees, and I have eleven cordoned apple trees and one free-standing one, and two cordoned pear trees and one free-standing one, all still fast asleep on my allotment. The two cordoned pear trees have never produced anything, so they could obviously do with a good bit of waking up, but the apple trees and the other pear tree have in the past been reasonably prolific without needing to be woken. Which isn’t to say that they might not be even more prolific if I wake them up in good time. Our allotment is right beside a very public footpath. Do I take my tin mug and wooden spoon and a bottle of cider down to the allotment one evening this week, pour the cider on the roots of the Jupiter or the Cox’s Orange Pippin, repetitively shout ‘Waes hael!’ as loudly as I can between singing wassail-type songs while beating the tin mug with the wooden spoon, and risk being led quietly away as one of the victims of the mental stress of a year under lockdown? Or do I just leave the apple and pear trees to wake up in their own good time, and find something more mundane to do with my unused tin mug and wooden spoon?