From David Maughan Brown in York: Of barrels and troughs

March 5th 

The evidence is stacking up that the Tory party is not just the nasty party – as perfectly exemplified by our Honorable Home Secretary – but also the comprehensively corrupt party.   Give or take a bit of relabelling, the ‘pork barrel’ cartoon above seems apposite: the geriatric male on the right seems a pretty accurate representative of the Conservative Party’s membership demographics, and the sleek and well-fed gentleman on the left seems a reasonable depiction of its MPs and their trough-sharing, or in the immediate case barrel-sharing, chums.  The dollar sign would just need to be changed for a pound sign.

Rishi Sunak, our Honourable Chancellor of the Exchequer – who has been coming in for a great deal of mockery of late for using public funding to put out what is said to be a cringingly embarrassing (I haven’t been able to steel myself to watch it yet) self-promotion video to assist his chances of moving next door from No 11 to No 10 Downing Street – has been having to deny accusations of engaging in “naked pork-barrel politics”.[1]  45 towns have recently been awarded a share of £1 billon ‘levelling up’ funding; 39 of those just happen to be in Tory constituencies, with Sunak’s own relatively wealthy constituency’s Richmondshire borough being high up the priority list.  The Independent’s Rob Merrick points out that ‘this echoes the controversy over the £25m towns fund handout to the constituency of Robert Jenrick’ – our old friend the Honorable Secretary of State for Communities, Housing and Local Government of the seemingly corrupt deal with Richard Desmond (see June 28th post) – which just happened to be only 270th on the list of the most deprived constituencies.  That decision was approved by Jake Berry, who was the Honourable Minister for the Northern Powerhouse (seriously) from 2017-2020 at the time, at the same time as Jenrick coincidentally approved a similar grant for Berry’s constituency.  The scratching of backs comes to mind – porcine backs.

But the corruption extends well beyond the relatively limited scope of pork-barrels, strictly interpreted as public monies channelled towards the ruling party’s constituencies. It is, for example, reported that our Honorable Prime Minister has succeeded in settling Sir Philip Rutman’s bullying case against our Honorable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, for a mere £340,000[2] of our taxpayer’s money (plus Rutman’s undisclosed legal costs) to avoid the full extent of the execrable Patel’s bullying being exposed in an employment tribunal.   A Prime Minister would, one might think, have second thoughts about a very public squandering of public money on protecting a hopelessly unsuitable senior minister from public scrutiny just because she is popular with the party members and hangers-on who cluster around the trough, but this is a government that quite clearly simply doesn’t care about what the rest of the world thinks.

Our honourable ministers are happy to be filmed standing outside their houses hypocritically clapping NHS staff, over 900 of whom have died during the pandemic, many of them as a direct result of government carelessness and incompetence, and then ‘reward’ them with a derisory 1% pay-rise, which, given that inflation is more than 1%, amounts to a pay cut.  Having squandered hundreds of millions on dishing out contracts for PPE and Test and Trace to their private sector chums they now claim they ‘can’t afford’ any more.  And they are very happy to break international law a second time, further trashing the UK’s international reputation and risking the Good Friday Agreement, by unilaterally extending the grace periods on post-Brexit customs checks at Northern Ireland ports until the end of September. 

The one unquestionable national success story of the past dismal year has been the roll-out of the vaccination programme. The trough-oriented politicians in our cabinet cannot contain the enthusiasm and volubility with which they are congratulating themselves on this success.  Their record suggests very strongly, however, that the only reason it has been a success is that, unlike Test and Trace, they couldn’t identify any profits that could be made by their private sector chums from the mass roll-out of vaccinations, so they handed it over to the NHS whose efficiency and commitment they are now trying to take credit for, even as they deny the staff responsible their promised post-Covid reward.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/budget/budget-keir-starmer-regeneration-funding-b1812508.html

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56281781

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of horses and men

Cyprina

March 3rd

I surprised myself with the visceral repugnance with which I responded to the news that the prominent Irish trainer, Gordon Elliott, had posed for a photograph sitting with an imbecilic grin astride the very dead body of one of the racehorses he had been hired to train.   The photograph has been severely and sensitively cropped to cut the body of the horse out of the version published by the mainstream media, but the narrative is shocking enough without need for the full visuals.

I have always felt a particular affinity with horses.  The closest I get to an acceptance of the esoteric insights of astrology is via its tendency to suggest that an affinity with horses is often a characteristic of people born under Sagittarius.  Centaurs don’t have much option when it comes to that affinity.  The highlight of my years in, or in this case out of, junior school were the two months we spent every three years at an uncle’s trading station on the Berea Plateau, in what was then Basutoland, when my father was required as a colonial servant to remove us from boarding school and take us out of what was then Tanganyika to go on ‘long leave’.   Those idyllic months were mainly spent with and on Basuto ponies.   

At the other end of the career spectrum, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal in the very turbulent and stressful ‘transformation’ years after the unbanning of the ANC in the 1990s, being able to spend two hours on Sunday mornings riding the Cyprina of the illustration above was the best possible therapy I could have wished for.   My friend Julia Braine lives with her partner, Ros, half a dozen dogs, innumerable cats, a flock of chickens and half a dozen horses on a smallholding in Winterskloof on the hills above Pietermarizburg.  Cyprina was a superb Lipizzaner mare whose liveliness belied her 25 years.  Her owner had, wholly unaccountably, more or less abandoned her to be stabled by Julia, she needed regular exercise and I could tell myself that I was performing a public service by assisting in that regard.  The smallholding gave immediate access to hundreds of hectares of pine and blue-gum plantations above Cedara where we could roam at will.  Cyprina was always uncannily sensitive and responsive to my mood and, while Julia who was then Head of the University Student Counselling Centre is a brilliant clinical psychologist, it was Cyprina who was the therapist-in-chief.  The painting is a treasured parting present from Julia and Ros when we left South Africa. 

The Gordon Elliott photograph and story have been greeted with public outrage and fury, mainly, it seems, by those connected in one way or another with the racing industry who are clearly, and with considerable justification, concerned that it brings the industry into disrepute.  The situation wasn’t helped by another report and photograph emerging immediately afterwards about and of an equally insensitive jockey having done exactly the same thing. Gordon Elliott has been banned pending a formal inquiry; I expect the same to happen to the jockey.

With hindsight, I now find myself wondering quite why I responded to the story with such visceral distress.   It was no more rational than is the idea that my affinity with horses has to do my having been born under the sign of Sagittarius.   The horse was dead; it didn’t mind somebody sitting on it.   Any anger would have been better directed at the fact that it could have been ‘trained’ to the point of dropping dead, which suggests that its state of health was not being properly monitored.  I have no vested interest whatever in the racing industry, and the question probably needs to be asked as to what proportion of the outrage and anger has been manufactured for fear of negative repercussions for the industry rather than out of genuine compassion and respect for the nameless horse.

Perhaps I should be more worried about my immediate response to yesterday’s BBC news coverage of babies starving to death in Yemen in the context of our contemptible government’s decision to cut our aid budget to Yemen by more than fifty percent.  The UK is still selling arms to Saudi Arabia whose proxy war in the Yemen has resulted in famine conditions for tens of thousands of impoverished people.  In direct contravention of a Tory manifesto commitment, £4 billion has been cut from our Foreign Aid budget, to the anger even of many Tories on the back-benches, as a contribution towards the hole in our finances caused by, among other things, the many more billions of pounds corruptly handed out to Tory chums during the pandemic without need for a formal tendering process or parliamentary approval.  I responded with anger and indignation to the coverage of the starving babies, but not with the same visceral distress. It is too easy to become inured to coverage of children starving to death in our grossly unequal world, and to feel a distanced anger rather than an emotional shock.   A stupid man sitting on a dead horse shouldn’t shock one’s sensibility more immediately than the many atrocities with far wider ramifications going on in the world around us.

From David Maughan Brown in York: How worried should we be?

Shamima Begum

March 1st

One of the advantages – or possible disadvantages, depending on which way one looks at it – of writing a blog over the course of what is nearly a year now is that one can follow the painfully slow course of events as they grind their way though our chronically underfunded judicial system.   My entry on July 17th was about the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum, the London schoolgirl who had been successfully groomed by Isis to join them in Syria at the age of fifteen, should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship, and our unspeakable Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, vindictive decision immediately to appeal that ruling in the Supreme Court.

On Friday the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the grounds that Ms Begum didn’t need to be in this country to be able to make a ‘fair and effective’ appeal.[1]  The Court of Appeal had recognised in approving the initial appeal that there might be security implications involved in Ms Begum’s returning to UK to present her case: ‘Ms Begum should be allowed to come to the United Kingdom to pursue her appeal albeit subject to such controls as the secretary of state deems appropriate.’  But the Supreme Court judgement asserted that there was ‘no basis for the Court of Appeal’s finding that the national security concerns about Begum could be addressed and managed by her being prosecuted or subjected to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) on her return.’   Patel’s triumphalism in response to the Supreme Court’s verdict was wholly predictable:  ‘The Supreme Court has unanimously found in favour of the government’s decision, and reaffirmed the home secretary’s authority to make vital national security decisions.’

Before too many champagne corks are popped by the assorted Islamophobes and/or indiscriminate racists whose support Priti Patel must be assuming in her celebration of our newly independent sovereign state’s ability to sock it to a stateless 21-year old woman languishing in a Syrian detention camp, it might be a good idea to look a bit more closely at what the highest courts in the land have said.  The Appeal Court said that to protect the safety of the British public Shamima Begum should be subject to whatever controls Patel might deem necessary – which would obviously include imprisonment.  It is difficult to interpret Patel’s immediate decision to appeal that verdict as anything other than an admission that she has no appropriate controls.  The Supreme Court then backed this up by saying that there was no basis for the Appeal Court’s finding ‘that the national security concerns about Begum could be addressed and managed by her being prosecuted of subjected to TPIM on her return.’

So Patel’s triumphalist assertion of her success in winning her appeal is, in effect, a celebration of the fact, now endorsed by the highest courts in the land, that there is nothing the state can do to protect us as citizens of the UK against the threat of terrorism we would incur by allowing a 21-year old woman who may or may not be harbouring terroristic inclinations (we have no means of knowing) back into the country to present her appeal in person against being rendered stateless.   The arbitrary decision by our previous Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to deprive Begum of her citizenship and render her stateless in the context of the refusal of Bangladesh to grant her citizenship was, of course, contrary to international law and this was implicitly recognised by the Supreme Court: ‘Although [Begum] cannot be rendered stateless, the loss of her British citizenship may nevertheless have a profound effect upon her life….’  But the Supreme Court decided, nevertheless, that ‘it would be irresponsible for the court to allow the appeal without any regard to the interests of national security….’

So even when we know exactly who it is who might be a potential terrorist, and even though we can make sure that they are securely guarded throughout their time in our  country if they are allowed back, either to be tried or to appeal against the illegal removal of their citizenship, our security services are so hopelessly useless that none of us would be safe.   Given that Lizzie Dearden, the Independent’s home affairs correspondent, reports that 40 percent of the 900 people who left the UK to join one or other side in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are already back in the UK, we should presumably be very worried indeed about our safety.  But then it is just possible that we are, in fact, reasonably safe, and that Priti Patel just happens to have chosen the unlucky (or criminally culpable, who knows without a fair trial) Shamima Begum as the victim for her vicious grandstanding as Patel plays her Strong Woman role for the benefit of her gallery of deplorables.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/shamima-begum-return-uk-supreme-court-b1807924.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Our ‘one-way road to freedom’

February 23rd

By his own avowal, our inimitable Prime Minister’s buccaneering days are done:  “I won’t be buccaneering with people’s lives” he insisted, as he traced the contours of his much trailed ‘roadmap out of lockdown’ at his Downing Street press conference yesterday. In the context of Johnson’s repeated promise to focus on ‘data not dates’ in responding to the pressure to relax the Covid restrictions prematurely from the libertarian loons on his backbenches, Johnson’s roadmap and accompanying announcement of his retirement from buccaneering with people’s lives, over 120,000 deaths too late, was less than entirely convincing.  The key milestones on the road consist entirely of dates, not data: March 8th, March 29th, April 12th, May 17th, June 21st by when all restrictions will supposedly be lifted.   The five-week gaps between the last three dates are, however, intended to allow for reviews of the data.  The roadmap is ‘a one-way road to freedom’, Johnson assured us, but so adept has he become at spectacular U-turns that we can be entirely confident that the mere fact that he is proceeding down a one-way street wont preclude yet another U-turn.

The last one-way road to “freedom” we went down was, it is probably worth remembering, with Brexit.  On January 1st this year Johnson, glowing with self-satisfaction, announced that ‘we have our freedom in our hands and it is up to us to make the most of it.’   Brexit is already giving some of our fishermen the freedom to make the most of the opportunity to find other jobs as their businesses go belly-up.  It seems doubtful that they would have voted so enthusiastically for a move that would, they were told, return to them the entirety of the UK’s freshly ‘independent’ fishing waters had they known that their quotas would in some instances go down rather than up, that transport delays would see millions of pounds worth of their fish having to be destroyed, and that they wouldn’t be able to export their shell fish catches to the EU at all.  In similar fashion, supermarket workers in Northern Ireland have been granted freedom from the irksome business of having to stack goods on their shelves as exporters from England, Scotland and Wales make the most of their freedom not to export their produce to Northern Ireland, freeing themselves thereby from the onerous necessity of filling in the reams of paperwork that Johnson erroneously declared before Brexit that they would be free to bin.

At the vastly more trivial end of the spectrum of damage, tens of thousands of people in this country must be being impacted by unheralded inconveniences arising from the freedom we are now holding in our unappreciative hands.  My particular irritation derives from the brand-new exercise bike that that has now been sitting lifelessly in our house for five weeks, all through our week of sub-zero temperatures, because the missing electrical connection is still missing.  My weekly phone-calls to Emma, Dominic, Dominic again, Emma again, and finally, yesterday, John – Emma and Dominic’s supervisor – have elicited the information that a batch of 50 of that same missing part (I was obviously not the only victim) arrived on our newly independent shores three weeks ago but had been held up in Customs until two hours before I phoned yesterday.   I am told it will arrive with me before the end of the week, but I’m not holding my breath.

Boris Johnson’s roadmap holds out the extremely attractive prospect of our being able to meet up outdoors with our Sheffield and York families over Easter, although separately, and spend time with children and grandchildren.  But I’m not holding my breath on that score either.   Perhaps Johnson would inspire more confidence that his buccaneering days really are over if he took the trouble to comb his hair occasionally and didn’t always look as if he had just come down off the poop deck of a wind-blown pirate ship wearing a hair-style modelled on an irredeemably worn-out lavatory brush.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “x9k9”?

x9k9?

February 19th

The sign in the photograph above is shiny new.  It appeared this week on the gate that allows access to one of the public footpaths that that lead to the 277 Low Moor Allotments among which ours is to be found.  The silhouette of the German Shepherd dog on the sign transported me instantly back to anti-apartheid protests and the myriad of guard-dog warning signs currently to be found decorating so many garden gates and walls in the suburbs of towns and cities in South Africa (including, intriguingly, the wall of the Fish Hoek police station).  Wondering who or what x9k9 might be, I resorted, as one does, to Google.  As expected, it is a security company whose website, rather more unexpectedly, offers a link to MI-5 and tells me in a flurry of acronyms worthy of a University policy document that:   ‘All x9k9’s dogs and handlers undergo licencing from independent ACPO instructors as well as NTIPDU, NASDU or BIPDT examiners. The quality and professionalism of our protection and detection dogs and handlers remains at the forefront of our commitment to all our clients and ensures a complete, second to none service you will find hard to beat.’  

Mulling over precisely how one would distinguish between ‘professional’ guard or sniffer dogs and amateur ones distracted me for a while from pondering over the x9 part of the title once the doggy dimension of k9 had become apparent.  When I got round to Googling ‘x9’ I was offered an impressive range of things to buy – from John Deere combine harvesters, to mountain bikes, to rugby boots, to electric golf carts, to tickets for the X9 bus company, (none of which I need right now) – but I remain none the wiser.  I am also puzzled as to precisely how useful dog patrols are likely to be to our allotment holders, unless the German Shepherds are ace rat-hunters – which would be very welcome.

The reason for the erection of the new signs at the entrances to the allotments is that the occasional bout of vandalism that has plagued the allotment site over the years has become a bit of a surge over the past few months.  A group, or possibly groups, of youths have been getting together after dark to socialise on some of the less well maintained allotments whose bushes provide cover for their activities.   Over the same period the locks on more than 30 allotment sheds have been cut off, some tools have been stolen and some items of garden furniture have been purloined, not necessarily by the burglars, for use at the gatherings.   One of the allotment holders had his shed burned down as the penalty for having had the temerity to remonstrate with one group.   Thus far, I’m pleased to say, our allotment has not been affected: it is right on the main path (as I mentioned in my entry on May 20th); I have avoided replacing the gate since it disintegrated; and the shed doesn’t look as if it has ever had a door or would be likely to house anything worth stealing.   In fact the only impact I’ve felt has been from the bombardment of well over 150 messages from members of the ‘Allotment watch’ WhatsApp group over the past couple of weeks.

I sympathise greatly with fellow allotment holders who have had their sheds damaged and their tools stolen.  But dog patrols?  Really?  The breakages and thefts are obviously wholly unjustifiable, but if I am feeling the frustrations of lockdown-induced cabin fever how much more desperate are teenagers likely to be feeling.  No school or college; no organised sport of any sort; no clubs to go to; no opportunities to meet their friends.  And they will be all too well aware that their own chances of getting Covid and being seriously ill are minimal.   So a huge amount is being asked of them by way of altruism.   This has been the case for a year now, on and off, and for a 17-year old that is, relatively speaking, more than four times as long as it is for someone who is over 70, who will in most instances be self-isolating from Covid infection for selfish (not intended in any pejorative sense) rather than altruistic reasons.    We certainly don’t need breakages, arson and theft on the allotments, but do we really need weaponised dogs?  The occasional police patrol wandering around the allotments would be enough, but a decade of austerity has cut police numbers too drastically for that.  The National Association of Security Dog Users (the ‘NASDU’ of the quotation from the x9k9 website) will have trained their German Shepherds to catch people, not rats.   Anyone who has been anywhere near the business end of a German Shepherd straining at the leash to get a piece of a protest marcher is likely to consider their addition to the wildlife on the allotments as going a good few steps too far.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Breaking Point”?

Brexit Poster

February 15th

Anyone capable of putting two and together who saw coverage of Donald Trump’s speech to his assembled followers on January 6th, immediately followed by the storming of the Capitol, cannot fail to have concluded that Trump incited the mob to do the storming and was ultimately responsible for the resultant loss of life.   Republican Senators who had either fled for their lives as the mob invaded, or barricaded themselves fearfully inside offices and committee rooms, were shown graphic footage of the crowd roaming the Capitol baying for blood in Trump’s name during the latter’s brief second impeachment trial.  Yet 43 out of 50 of those Senators managed to find reason to exonerate the man the entire outside world could see was directly responsible: he rallied his followers from around the country, repeated the lie that their votes had been stolen, and told them that their only recourse was to ‘fight’.  

When they assumed office, those 43 Senators all publicly swore (or affirmed): ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same….’   But there is clearly a limit to the bearing of true faith and allegiance, and the defending of the Constitution, when it comes to the potential for alienating the deranged Donald Trump’s 74 million strong voter base.  Truth, integrity, honesty, probity were all readily ditched in the face of the threat Trump’s support base poses to the retention of their Senate seats.   So much for democracy, the world’s autocrats and dictators will happily, and no doubt vocally, conclude.

The ways in which our populist politicians in UK play to what they perceive to be their base of racists and xenophobes may have less of the TV reality-show razzmatazz about them, but they hold just as much potential to become dangerously out of hand in the not too distant future.   Farage and Johnson consciously played the race card in the lies they told to the electorate in the build up to the Referendum, most obviously in the ‘Breaking Point’ poster and the allegation that Turkey was about to join the EU.  Seemingly every day now the TV and print media, those that care about such things, are carrying stories about the extent of the vitriolic racist abuse being directed at our footballers and BAME politicians, most notably in the latter case the female ones.  And recent figures show a 300% increase in Antisemitic incidents reported in UK over the past decade.

Do the increasing levels of racism and xenophobia flourish because they are given license by our motley and depressingly mediocre bunch of cabinet ministers, or are the chameleon politicians merely following an existing trend in pandering to a Trumpian base?  Whichever is the case, the Prime Minister has a responsibility to do something about it  – but we can be 100% certain that he won’t.  In the absence of a written constitution, the only oaths formally sworn by public officials in the UK are oaths of allegiance to the Queen, which carry no moral or ethical implications beyond that loyalty.   

The symbolism of the ‘Home’ in the ‘Home Secretary’ designation and its oversight of policing and immigration gives that role a particular significance.   Its present, seemingly irremovable, incumbent, Priti Patel, has recently gone on record as baldly saying ‘I don’t support protest’ and ‘I didn’t agree with taking the knee per se, at all’.1 [i]So much for our sportsmen’s support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement; so much, for that matter, for Dr Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the USA.  Patel comes across as a quintessential example of what black anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s would have dismissively termed a ‘coconut’ – brown on the outside but white on the inside, where the ‘white’ represented the support for the vicious racism of apartheid that characterised so many white South Africans.  But nothing Patel can say or do is enough to dislodge her from the role for which she is so manifestly ill-equipped because, word has it, she is much more popular with the UK’s Trumpian Conservative base than Boris Johnson is.  We should be worried.

The Napier barracks in Kent can, once again, be taken as an example, this time of the way Patel and her Home Office are playing to what they perceive to be the prejudices of their Tory-supporting gallery – without the reality TV show razzmatazz, but to deeply damaging effect.   It has now emerged that a 2014 report concluded that the late nineteenth century barracks had never been intended for long term use, didn’t even in 2014 meet ‘acceptable standards for accommodation’ and were ‘derelict’.[ii] On the grounds that they ‘previously housed our brave soldiers’ (in Cabinet-speak all our soldiers are, by definition, ‘brave’, just as everyone who dies does so ‘sadly’) Priti Patel recently claimed that is ‘an insult to say they are not good enough for asylum seekers’.  It just so happens that nobody from the Home Office has actually visited the barracks since November last year.  Leaving aside the implication that we house our ‘brave soldiers’ in derelict accommodation, this obviously begs the question of where she perceives asylum seekers to be in the hierarchy of humanity: the lower the rung of the ladder they are perceived to be on, the more suitable for them the accommodation becomes.   Chris Philp, the Immigration Minister, gave the game away when he claimed the facility was ‘appropriate and suitable’ to house asylum seekers and commented in the House of Commons that  ‘They were good enough for our armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people who have arrived in this country seeking asylum.’[iii]

Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s shadow Home Secretary, responded to this by saying ‘This whole debacle shows how completely out-of-touch the Home Office is with reality.  To place asylum seekers in inhumane conditions and claim it was necessary to maintain public confidence in the asylum system is utterly appalling – and shows contempt for both asylum seekers and the general public’.   But, with the shadow of Donald Trump lurking in the background, one has to ask whether the Home Office really is out of touch with reality, and whether the ‘the general public’ would regard themselves as having been shown contempt.  Are Patel and Philp right in thinking that the general public of this country is happy to see desperate and vulnerable asylum seekers, fleeing from who knows what horrors, treated with deliberate cruelty, inhumanity and contempt?  If so, we need to be very worried indeed.


1


[i] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-batel-blm-protests-b1801663.html

[ii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-barracks-home-office-phe-b1802951.html

[iii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/barracks-asylum-seekers-inspectors-home-office-b1801055.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

February 6th

So our inimitable Home Secretary, Pretti Patel, the darling of the political dinosaurs of the Conservative Party, has finally found her ideal solution to the irritating problems posed by pesky foreigners misguided enough to seek asylum in the UK.  If you can’t create giant waves along the length of the English Channel to swamp their overcrowded dinghies and drown them, and you can’t pack them off to St Helena in the South Atlantic as soon as they arrive, the best thing to do is to make the lives of those who don’t die of disease so unutterably miserable and dangerous at the Covid-19 plagued Napier Barracks in Kent that they will be desperate enough to risk those lives once again by crossing the channel to get back to France.  

Yesterday’s Independent carried an article by May Bulman whose title says it all:  ‘”Inhumane” conditions are forcing asylum seekers to risk their lives to leave UK.’[1]   As one Kurdish asylum seeker intent of making the return journey put it: ‘I am not being treated like a human being here.  The Home Office is making an effort to make people hate asylum seekers…. The journey back is totally dangerous.… But in the UK I am losing my dignity.’   A Syrian man who managed to reach UK after five years of trying, but who is now also intent on leaving, said: ‘I want to feel that I am a human being.  I want dignity and freedom.  I am looking for safety.  I came here because I thought there was no racism in the UK and that it was a country that protects people’s human rights.’  This is obviously deeply shameful, a desperately depressing indictment of this country as represented by its 2021 Conservative government, but what on earth is the point, one might well ask, of writing a blog entry on Covid2020diary about it? 

One normally thinks of a diary as a daily record of the events of the day, which makes the writing of diary entries somewhat problematic when day follows day follows day, with very few of those indistinguishable days being able to boast anything resembling an event.  One can go out for an occasional bike ride when the weather permits, but usually around the same traffic-avoiding circuit, now keeping well clear of the Ouse which is still in flood.  One has the very occasional fleeting non-contact with family, friends or neighbours, and the very welcome but very distanced ‘contact’ via FaceTime, Zoom or Whattsapp chats.  But there is an overriding sense of stasis. The result being that much of what a diary or blog entry is left to record in the absence of noteworthy events in one’s own life is the thoughts, emotions and reactions stirred by external events.  

In our present context this can all too often feel like raging against the dying of the light.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is, of course, about old age, which should in his view ‘burn and rave at close of day.’  That may well be applicable in my case, although it is probably fair to say that ‘old age’ isn’t quite what it used to be, even as relatively recently as 1947 when Thomas wrote the poem.   But I recall having a very strong sense of raging against the dying of the light, to broaden the scope of the metaphor, when lecturing, speaking on public platforms and at funerals, and writing articles for, and letters to, the newspapers raging against apartheid in South African between 1970 and 1990.   In those years, unpleasant as it was, 3am death threats, loads of chicken manure being sent to be dumped on our lawn, workers arriving to cut down all the trees in our garden (both of the last two fortunately being intercepted) and so on, at least made it clear that, if nothing else, what I was doing and saying was getting under the skin of the apartheid Security Branch.  It won’t have contributed to the demise of the National Party and the formal ending of apartheid, but it was clearly making an impression on somebody.

Here the light is not, at least not yet, dying as comprehensively as it was in South Africa under apartheid, but one just has to look across the Atlantic to see how Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office has dispelled so much of the darkness of the Trump era to recognize the extent to which, by contrast, the light is still dying in the darker corners of our own polity.   By way of illustration one could point to Biden’s immediate executive order to reunite the children of asylum seeking immigrants with their parents, by way of contrast to our government’s illegal detention of immigrant children, which is reported in today’s Independent to have been condemned by Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, as ‘wilfully ignoring the plight of vulnerable children’.  But is there much point in the UK of 2021 in raging against the dying of the light by writing letters to newspapers; making blog entries; signing petitions organized by Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Change.org etc.; responding to surveys, publishing human rights themed novels, and making whatever peripheral contribution I can, to the excellent work of the Centre for Applied Human Rights?

Beyond the few reassuring ‘likes’ that indicate that a handful of people are reading the blogs, raging feels about as effective as King Lear’s raging against the storm.  The storm can’t hear King Lear and, even if it could, it is controlled by forces far stronger than even a Shakespearean king has the power to control.  I know, to refer back to Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, that my words are forking no lightning, but I also know that, unlike his ‘wise men’ who ‘at their end know dark is right’, I remain convinced that raging against the dying of the light is better than subsiding into frustrated silence.  Lightning is destructive, contributing to Covid2020diary, while not necessarily creative, has provided a necessary outlet for otherwise impotent frustration over the past year.   Readers who don’t want to read what they might well regard as yet another rant about Johnson, or Priti Patel, or the Home Office, don’t need to.  It is possible that I lived under apartheid for so long that I can’t shake off the now ingrained compulsion to rage against what I perceive to be the dying of the light.  I’m just grateful to those responsible for setting Covid2020diary up for providing a vehicle.


[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20210205/281672552628016

From David Maughan Brown in York: Beyond reason

February 6th

Regrettably, the ‘Q’ in the placard being held aloft by ‘QAnon shaman’ Jacob Chansley in the above photograph, does not stand for the Quartermaster whose role in life was to equip James Bond with ever more sophisticated technological devices with which to outwit and, where necessary, try to kill Blofeld and the other evil villains of Ian Fleming’s fictional world.   Problematic as the delusion that he had been sent by Fleming’s Q might be in a United States absurdly awash with semi-automatic rifles and other assorted lethal hardware, the delusion for which Chansley is a figurehead is not just the isolated delusion of a single deranged individual, but a bizarre moral panic shared by a very significant number of people.  What its adherents believe is, for those less delusional, literally unbelievable: President Trump is waging a secret war against an elite of Satan-worshipping paedophiles led by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton who have a nasty habit of drinking children’s blood and will at some point, preferably very soon, have to be arrested and executed.   It is almost as unbelievable, but in this instance true, that nearly 75 million people voted for Donald Trump in November, an unknown but not insignificant number of whom are QAnon conspiracy theorists whom Trump has approvingly described as ‘people who love our country.’

Not an orderly queue

The absurdity of the QAnon conspiracy would be laughable were the belief not to have been held fervently enough to have motivated a significant portion of the rabble who stormed the Capitol on November 6th in what has been described as the most significant assault on democracy in the US in the past two hundred years.  QAnon came to mind yesterday evening as I watched the Channel 4 news coverage of the online abuse to which NHS staff in UK are being subjected by equally delusional Covid-19-deniers.  Nurses working themselves into the ground, in some instances all too literally, enduring 14 hour shifts in their efforts to keep Covid patients alive in ICUs, traumatised by the deaths of the very many who are beyond saving, are being accused of being lying prostitutes, and worse, whose comments on social media about what they are going through are held to be nothing more than crude attempts to cover up the fact that, in reality, the hospitals are empty.  Consultants who go public about the difficulties the hospitals are facing are being sent abusive death threats.   This is several stages beyond the level of insanity needed to believe that 5G phone masts are responsible for causing Covid-19, and potentially far more damaging in the long term than going out and trying to burn down a few 5G masts:  many of the staff in our underfunded and overstretched NHS have already been pushed to, and beyond, their limit, and being rewarded for their sacrifices by vicious abuse seems likely to result, as soon as the immediate crisis is over, in a exodus of the staff essential to the survival of the NHS. 

So what is going on?  What is it that not only enables such delusions to gather momentum and infect so many people, but also that allows so many of those people to feel free to direct virulent and ignorant abuse at professional people who know what they are talking about?  Recent OECD figures indicate that 91% of US citizens between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed high school education, and 47% have a post-secondary degree; the equivalent figures for the UK are 79% and 46%.[1]  QAnon believers in the US are not confined to the 9% who didn’t complete higher education, as exemplified by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a recently elected Republican Congresswoman graduate of the University of Georgia, who is an outspoken QAnon supporter who apparently has a habit of ‘liking’ social-media posts calling for violence against elected Democrats and claiming that both 9/11 and the multiple school shootings in US are staged events.   I cannot pretend to know what going on, but it is clear that ‘universal’ education, as currently practiced, is not succeeding in vaccinating enough of the population of either the USA or UK with sufficient rationality to protect against infection from wholly irrational and potentially extremely damaging conspiracy theories.

This being the case, what can be done to protect the vulnerable, and try to preempt the long-term damage that social media, feeding off deranged conspiracy theories, can do to individuals, and through them to precious and indispensable institutions like our NHS?  Freedom of speech is precious, but it isn’t an absolute right:  nobody has a right to stand up in a crowded theatre and shout ‘Fire!’ when there isn’t a fire.   One safeguard against that happening lies in the fact that shouting ‘Fire!’ in those circumstances could hardly help but draw very immediate attention to the person doing the shouting. Twitter-handles and Facebook accounts, by contrast, can be linked to made-up email accounts that enable trolls to retain their anonymity.   Is there any reason in a democratic society, where the rule of law is respected, for social media companies not to require verifiable identification from their users?  Those companies are currently investing substantial resources in taking down offensive posts, but usually only after they have already done their damage to the recipients.  Why should people who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression in ‘free’ societies not be expected to be held accountable for what they say?  

Trying to find ways of making sure trolls can be held accountable for their media posts is, however, a case of trying to lock the stable door long after the horse has bolted.  The prior question must be what could those of us who have spent their lives as educators have done, and what can our successors now do, to try to instill in our students some kind of rational defence against the siren attractions of ever more deranged conspiracy theories?


[1] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cac.asp

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Universities and Food-banks

2nd February

Over the course of the last many months of WordPress blog entries, I’ve noted on more than one occasion how pleased I am not still to be part of a senior team trying to manage a university during a global pandemic.  The arrival of a pandemic like Covid-19 might have been manageable for universities in the idealistic decades of their post-war expansion, when Higher Education was seen as a largely unquestioned social good and its roles both as a ‘critic and conscience’ in an increasingly secularized society, and as the provider of much of the intellectual leadership behind commercially beneficial research were recognized.    Before the days of the 1985 Jarratt Report’s study of efficiencies in Higher Education and the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Cash Cows’ and ‘Dogs’, before the growth of populist anti-intellectualism, and long before Michael Gove told us we were ‘tired of experts’, many governments around the world recognized the intellectual, social and commercial value of university education and were prepared to pay for it via student grants and university subsidies. 

The very rapid expansion of Higher Education obviously posed challenges for a model based on an enthusiastic recognition by government of the extent of the benefits universities and their graduates bring to society.  From the 1980s onwards, with the Jarratt Report being a key moment, the weighting of the perceived benefits changed and the emphasis shifted to the benefits of Higher Education to the individual, rather than to society as a whole.  This has resulted in a steady decline in government subsidy to universities and grants to students; a rapid commodification of education; a reification of students as ‘products’; and an instrumentalist fetishisation of ‘impact’ as the measurable benefit of research.   The withdrawal of public funding for all but the most resource-intensive science-based subjects resulted in what amounted for many universities to privatization by stealth, which means that many now have to rely almost entirely on student fees to cover their costs.   Given that there is a ceiling to the fees universities are allowed to charge ‘home’ students, the mass recruitment of international students was an obvious recourse and, in a competitive market economy, many universities have been charging as much for their courses as the market will bear.   There may well be some additional cost to teaching international students who are often not English first- language speakers and often come to the UK with very different learning styles from ‘home’ students, but that additional cost is pretty marginal, and the ethics of charging international students significantly higher fees for exactly the same courses as are offered to ‘home’ students are highly questionable.

Our universities seem to me now to be finding themselves in an impossible position in times of Covid-19 crisis, and are coming in for increasingly virulent criticism from students, parents, the media and the wider public.  In this context it seemed important to explore very briefly how the universities reached this point – oversimplified and crude as the account I have given is – if only because it throws some light on the Pontius Pilate-like extent to which, regardless of universities’ major contribution to society, government now washes its hands of its responsibility for our universities and, through them, their students.  That responsibility would have been painfully obvious to everybody in the 1960s and 1970s.  The very poor university experience being offered to ‘home’ students has been the subject of quite extensive media coverage over the past year; the plight of international students has received much less coverage here, although one suspects that it has featured prominently enough in the media in the students’ home countries to act as a significant deterrent to future international recruitment.

The photograph above, published three days ago, is of an amorphous queue of destitute international students, many of them postgraduate students from India, waiting in line for handouts of food parcels from a food-bank.   The accompanying Channel 4 news report revealed that the food-bank in question, whose location remained discreetly undisclosed, now caters solely for students and succeeds in providing food for 1,700 of them every week.  As someone who spent his working life in universities I found the photograph and accompanying report deeply disturbing.   The students cannot afford to buy food, partly because the pandemic has resulted in the disappearance of the 20 hours per week part-times jobs many would have relied on.   The ones who were interviewed said that they didn’t want to let parents, who had in most cases made enormous sacrifices to enable them to come to the UK, know that they were struggling.  They were also very reluctant to make approaches to their university as they were worried, in the context of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’, that that could lead to their visas being withdrawn.  It is obviously common knowledge that the Home Office will have done its best to find reasons stop them coming to UK in the first place, and it is not an unreasonable assumption that it will be looking for reasons to deport them.   In the meantime, it was clear that the universities had proved themselves incapable of communicating with the students who were being interviewed to let them know what student welfare provisions, however limited, were available to them. 

The universities remain reliant on student fees.  Their overheads will remain largely the same.  There will not be many opportunities to furlough staff, as academic staff are having to come to terms with remote teaching, and marking loads will stay the same, while most support staff in roles that haven’t been outsourced will still be needed.  Some universities will have significant reserves to draw on, but many don’t.  As I have said, I do not envy university managers their role in current circumstances.  But they should, at least, be able to communicate with their students a great deal better than some of them appear to be doing, and they need to find some way of helping the very many international students who find themselves having to queue at the food-banks if they want to have something to eat.  It isn’t as if this situation is new.  The BBC was already reporting on 29th July last year that up to 600 international students a week were queuing round the block on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Newham Community Projects base in East Ham to receive food from volunteers.  Charging international students very high fees for the privilege of registering, and then leaving them to be fed by food-banks is not a good look for our universities.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Dehumanising the victims

Napier barracks in Folkestone

January 28th

January 27th being Holocaust Memorial Day, we attended the annual civic commemoration of the day, this year via Zoom.  York has more cause that most UK cities to be highly sensitive to Holocaust Memorial Day, having been the site of anti-Semitic riots which culminated on 16th March 1190 in the murders or suicides of the entire one hundred and fifty or so Jewish community of York when they sought refuge in the wooden keep of what later became Clifford’s Tower, which was then burnt to the ground.

Yesterday’s very well put together commemoration was Zoomed from the University of York and introduced by the Vice Chancellor, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor.  The major part of the ceremony featured a very moving talk by Ariana Neumann who told the story behind her memoir When Time Stopped, which recounts  her gradual uncovering, as she grew up in Venezuela, of the past her German-speaking Jewish father would never ever talk about.  Ariana discovered that 25 of the 29 members of her father’s extended family had perished in the Nazi concentration camps and that, although he had managed to escape being sent to the camps himself, her father’s experience had left him so traumatised that he was never able to speak about it.   As is the case every year, if the appalling horror of the murder of the Jews, travellers and others in the concentration camps was the one very striking aspect of the import one took away from the commemoration, the other was the recognition that it took years of incremental dehumanization of the victims to enable their mass murder in the gas-chambers to take place.

All facile analogies or comparisons of other circumstances and events with the Holocaust itself are rightly regarded with suspicion as potentially anti-Semitic tropes, but it is clear that all genocides such as those in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Bosnia and in Darfur begin with the dehumanization of the victims that characterized Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II.   So it is greatly heartening to see that President Biden recognizes the importance of an immediate reversal of his predecessor’s insistence on demonising and dehumanising asylum-seekers and other immigrants.  Putting a stop to the building of Trump’s wall, and decreeing that government documents cease using the term ‘alien’ and speak of ‘non-citizens’ instead, may be largely symbolic, but reuniting immigrant children with their parents, and calling a 100-day halt to deportations, are much more than symbolic.  ‘Non-citizen’ is, of course, only halfway to being acceptable terminology, given the ‘non-White’ term beloved of apartheid functionaries and still used with such casual thoughtlessness in contemporary political and media discourse in the UK.

All the more reason then for dismay when, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, firstly, our Trumpian Home Office, in this instance fronted by Chris Philip, the immigration Minister, announces that unaccompanied child refugees will no longer be given sanctuary in the UK, in spite of the fact that the Home Office takes ‘responsibility for the welfare of children very seriously.’   So seriously that their welfare can happily be left to the people-traffickers.  Secondly, an article by May Bulman in The Independent[1]exposes the extent of the Covid19 outbreak at the Napier Barracks in Folkstone, one of the “camps” being used to house asylum seekers in the UK.  Bulman reports that by Tuesday over 100 positive cases had been recorded with at least one asylum seeker having resorted to rough sleeping in the camp to avoid having to sleep in a dormitory with up to 27 others, any of whom might be infected.   On 11th January Chris Philip responded to a parliamentary written question saying that the Home office was reviewing the recommendations of a ‘rapid review’ of asylum accommodation.  Ten days later the Home Office was still reviewing the recommendations.

Given the Windrush scandal, the ‘hostile environment’, and the callous indifference to the fate of asylum seekers exhibited by the Home Office and its current figurehead, Priti Patel, it is not stretching too much of a point to wonder whether confining asylum-seekers under such conditions in the first place, and the unconscionable delay in reviewing the findings of the ‘rapid review’ of their accommodation and doing something about it, is not deliberate, rather than just yet another manifestation of our government’s inveterate incompetence.   If we can’t generate waves in the English Channel to swamp the asylum-seekers’ dinghies, and we can’t send them all to St Helena, by way of deterrents, let’s just not worry too much about whether some of them die of Covid.   That might put an extra burden on the NHS, but it could stop them wanting to come here.  If that sounds unduly cynical I would, once again, cite in my defence the striking similarity of attitude and mode of operation of our Home Office to that of apartheid South Africa’s Department of the Interior.   

The relatively good news is that even the most cursory research will show that it isn’t only the Guardian and The Independent that have carried this story sympathetically. Even the Sun and the Daily Mail have done soboth of which have reported on a petition to shut down the site, along with a similar facility at a barracks in Wales, which had already by last Tuesday amassed more than 10,000 signatures.  So, much as the behaviour of the Home Office would suggest that it sees its role as being to take the lead in the incremental dehumanization of the victims of an inherently xenophobic government, it would seem that it still has some way to go if even the populist mouthpieces and opinion leaders of the tabloid press are still able to view the victims of the Home Office’s bullying sympathetically.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-camps-home-office-covid-b1792422.html