From David Maughan Brown in York: “Drain the swamp”?

June 8th 2021

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Which comes first, a racist and xenophobic electorate that chooses a Prime Minister and government in its own image, or a corrupt and xenophobic Prime Minister and government whose racism and xenophobia give license to a section of the electorate to put its own worst instincts on public display?   Sunday’s edition of The Observer  (6th June) provides enough material across a range of fronts to make an ultimately futile engagement with the latter conundrum an attractive alternative to sinking into a profound depression as one wades through the morass.   The journalism, as always with The Observer, is excellent; the material they have to write about is in many cases a putrid swamp.

The edge of the swamp is entered on page two with an article featuring Gareth Southgate’s (the England football manager) articulation of his team’s determination to continue to ‘take a knee’ before England’s Euro matches as a gesture of the team’s solidarity in rejecting the racism to which England’s black footballers are all too often subjected, regardless of the booing from English ‘fans’ sufficiently racist to boo their own team.  A Tory MP, one Lee Anderson, has expressed himself so incensed with the ‘taking of the knee’ that he will boycott future games.  That will at least result in one fewer Conservative in the crowd whose non-racial credentials are, at the very least, questionable.

The all too predictable follow-on from an article featuring racist booing is the first of a number of articles featuring our unhomely Home Office.  An article by Mark Townsend (p.8) points to the likelihood of 300k EU nationals soon finding themselves the victims of another Windrush-type scandal as decisions about their ‘settled’ status are delayed by the Home Office beyond its own arbitrary deadline.  Townsend quotes Pierre Makhlouf, assistant director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, saying: ‘The ability of the Home Office to refuse entry, to detain and deport people is the Brexit experience that unfortunately all EU nationals are being forced to learn, now that they are being treated in the same way as non-EU nationals.’  It is hardly surprising in these circumstances that the hospitality industry and hospitals in the UK, dependant for so long on EU workers, particularly nurses, should find themselves desperately short-staffed.  So dire is this wholly predictable situation that even Tim Martin, the chairman of Wetherspoon’s pub-chain, as delusionally enthusiastic a supporter of Brexit as one could have found, has called on the government to create a visa scheme specifically for EU workers (‘It’s a crisis.  I’ve spent all week trying to recruit chefs, but they don’t exist,’ Joanna Partridge and Richard Partington, p.54.) 

A little further in, one sinks into ‘Global Britain’s’ Foreign Aid cut, as one finds Mark Lowcock, who used to be a permanent secretary in the Department for International Development before Johnson’s government demonstrated its enthusiasm for International Development by doing away with the Department, talking about the famine in Ethiopia which, he pointed out, is the worst famine problem the world has seen for a decade: ‘Last year, the UK reported to the UN the provision od $108m of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia.  This year they have so far reported $6m’ (p.10).  In Ethiopia alone, never mind the other countries where the cuts have decimated humanitarian programmes, thousands and thousands of people, mainly children, are going to die as a direct result of this decision. 

Michael Savage’s article goes on to quote Caroline Noakes, a former Tory cabinet minister, saying: “The cuts to UK aid represent just 1% of what the Chancellor is borrowing this year.  But they mean funding for the UN’s reproductive health programme has been cut by 85%.  The UN says this aid would have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths.’  Why is the government doing this?  Not because it needs to try to claw back the costs of the pandemic but, quite simply, because it is convinced that its electorate wants to see ‘charity’ beginning at home.  The government obviously doesn’t tell that electorate how many global babies and young children ‘Global Britain’ is going to allow to die in the process.  Two equally excoriating and depressing articles by Andrew Rawnsley (p.45) and David Davis (p.51), the former Foreign Office minister, point to the extent to which the decision tarnishes what international reputation the UK has left after Brexit.  

If one has the stomach to continue to wade through the swamp, it isn’t long before one comes to David Conn’s special report titled ‘A Death on Moss Side’.  This is a detailed report into what looks very much to an outsider as a travesty of justice whose essence is conveyed in the trailer: ‘In 2017, 11 Manchester teenagers were jailed for a total of 168 years under controversial legislation for their part in a killing.  Now, as three of them launch an appeal, supporters claim the police investigation and the subsequent trials were riddled with racism’ (p.21).  The teenagers were found guilty and sentenced under the ‘joint enterprise law’ which David Conn elaborates on a follows: ‘A controversial legal mechanism, it holds that all participants in a violent incident, however minor (their) individual actions, equally guilty if they are found to have intentionally “encouraged and assisted” anybody who committed the most serious violence.’

A couple of years after the formal ending of apartheid in South Africa, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, I was telephoned by the man in charge of the local prison who told me that he had two prisoners, one a member of the ANC and another a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party who had been members of the university Grounds staff but had been convicted of murder and sentenced to very long prison terms.  They had both been present at a flare-up of the conflict between those two bitterly antagonistic parties when a man had been murdered, but both, he told me, had been model prisoners and there had been no evidence that either had been directly involved in the violence.  They had been convicted on a ‘common cause’ basis, i.e. under the South African equivalent of ‘joint enterprise’ law.  He told me he would release them if I was prepared to re-employ them.  I consulted the Vice Chancellor and we had very little hesitation in agreeing.   Both resumed work and didn’t murder anyone.   If the system in South Africa could set about trying to shake off its racist preconceptions after apartheid, perhaps the swamp can be drained here too – to borrow the words of the ultimate swamp-dweller.

Perhaps, but only perhaps.  The last word here should be given to Nick Cohen whose trenchant article provided The Observer with some of its last words, (‘Scroungers, lefty lawyers … the Tories duck scrutiny by inventing enemies’, p.52): ‘You cannot say anything coherent without generalising, and so, and to generalise, the British will lose their rights to challenge an over-mighty and underwhelming state because they hate foreigners more than they love political accountability.’  Perhaps the only way out of the swamp is for a leader of Nelson Mandela’s stature to reboot our national morality, and either win over our Tory cheer-leading gutter press or shame it into silence.  But there aren’t many people of that stature around.  

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘You’ll never walk alone”

Hillsborough April 1989

May 31st

In the long-ago days before Covid-19 lockdowns, when we made regular visits to our family in Sheffield, we drove into the city past the Hillsborough Stadium, the haunting home-ground of Sheffield Wednesday – scene of the UK’s worst football disaster.  On a sunny afternoon in April 1989, 96 Liverpool football supporters who had arrived at the stadium to watch an FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest were crushed to death, penned like farm animals into the steel cages that were considered an appropriate way to contain ‘football hooligans’.  The first inquest in 1991 found the 96 deaths to have been ‘accidental’; twenty-seven years after the disaster, a second inquest, held after an indefatigable campaign by the bereaved families, found that they had been unlawfully killed as a result of grossly negligent failures by the police; last week, another five years later, the latest, but one hopes not the last, chapter in this shameful saga was written when a judge found that the last of those charged with any kind of responsibility for what happened had no case to answer.   So, if they happen to be football supporters, 96 people can be unlawfully killed but nobody can be held responsible.

Ten years after Hillsborough, Professor Phil Scraton published his definitive account of the tragedy, Hillsborough: The Truth, (Mainstream Publishing Projects, 1999), whose Preface tells us: ‘It is a story of how those in authority seek to cover their tracks to avoid blame and responsibility.  It is a story of how the ‘law’ fails to provide appropriate means of discovery and redress for those who suffer through institutionalised neglect and personal negligence.  It is a story of how ordinary people can be subjected to the insensitivity and hostility of agencies which place their professional priorities ahead of the personal needs and collective rights of the bereaved and survivors.’

The survivors of the bereaved families will have been extremely surprised, and deeply disappointed, to discover that the two retired senior police officers who had overseen the doctoring of police statements to eliminate any criticism of those in charge of the match, and the solicitor who advised them to do the doctoring, had no case to answer.   It had been abundantly clear as early as 1990, when Lord Taylor published his report following a public inquiry, that the police statements had been amended to ensure that all blame for the disaster was laid at the door of the Liverpool supporters.  Not only was it claimed that they were all drunk and forced their way into the stadium, but the police fed lies to the tabloids, telling them that inebriated Liverpudlians had staggered around urinating on policemen trying to resuscitate the dying victims.  The Sun relished and published the lies, and has been boycotted in Liverpool ever since – as it should have been everywhere else in the country.  The police deception first revealed by the Taylor Report was further revealed in painstaking detail in 2012 by the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) which, as Tony Evans put it, ‘trawled through more than 450,000 documents, some of which showed the full extent of the police’s deception.’*

So, if there was no question whatever that the police had doctored their statements, and the trial had heard evidence to that effect, how could it be that the accused had no case to answer where perverting the course of justice was concerned?  The answer beggars belief, and demonstrates if anything ever did that, as George Chapman is said to have first put it in 1654, ‘the law is an ass’.   The three men could not have been perverting the course of justice because, it was held, the statements were amended for Lord Taylor’s public inquiry and as one ’expert witness, Sir Robert Francis QC, told the jury, there was no legal duty of candour for police at a public inquiry.’  Lizzie Dearden explained further in Thursday’s Independent: ‘Mr Justice William Davis ruled that amending the statements of police officers who were on duty at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was not captured by the offence of perverting the course of justice …. because the amended statements were intended for a public inquiry into safety at sports grounds led by Lord Justice Taylor.’ So the judge instructed the jury to acquit all three of the defendants because it is fine for the police to tell lies to public inquiries: they aren’t judicial proceedings, the police don’t have to give their testimony on oath and it is apparently acceptable for them to tell whatever lies they like.**

Tony Evans writes: ‘None of those involved in the quest for truth are surprised at the outcome in Salford. After the HIP’s report was released nine years ago, prime minister David Cameron apologised for the “double injustice” suffered by the families and survivors. Cameron was sympathetic to the Hillsborough cause, as was his successor, Theresa May. Both felt there needed to be a reckoning for those who failed in their duty. The political momentum evaporated when Boris Johnson replaced May.’  That will be the Boris Johnson who wrote in The Spectator  in 2004 about: ‘Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge even to this day the part played in the disaster by the drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon.’

The collapse of the trial allowed Jonathan Goldberg QC, who had represented the accused solicitor Metcalf, to declare “There was no cover-up at Hillsborough,” to refer to the successive investigations as a “witch hunt”, and to go on to repeat the lies told by the police 32 years ago as though they hadn’t been disproved 31 years ago: ‘Supporters caused a riot that led to the gate having to be opened, that unfortunately let the people in and crushed to death the innocents as they were – complete innocents – who were at the front of the pens, who had arrived early and were not drunk and were behaving perfectly well.’***  Goldberg did, however, manage to hit the nail on the head when, in summing up his case for the defence, he asserted:  “This court is not a court of morals.  This court is not a court of common decency.”

Nobody would expect morals or common decency where Boris Johnson is concerned, and with our prime minister setting the scene it would appear that morals and common decency are going to remain in short supply where the bereaved families of the victims of the South Yorkshire Police’s gross negligence at Hillsborough are concerned.   The words of the anthem that has kept their campaign going for 32 years are going to need to keep them going still further: ‘Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone.’


* https://uk.sports.yahoo.com/news/victims-hillsborough-disaster-denied-justice-164536122.html

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/hillsborough-trial-police-officers-liverpool-b1854101.html?r=88256

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/hillsborough-disaster-liverpool-jonathan-goldberg-b1856284.html?r=33186

from David Maughan Brown in York, UK: Climate Change

Were the ‘Flying Fickle Finger of Fate Award’ still around to be awarded on a global basis, the jet stream that is currently playing fast and loose with our weather in the UK would, with a bit of updating of the criteria, be a prime candidate for a fickleness award.   At any rate, there seems to be a good chance that it could be a pointer to our possible fate where our climate is concerned.

A word of explication might be in order here.  Between 1968 and 1973, NBC in the USA broadcast a satirical programme titled Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which provided, in the words of entertainment.ha.com, ‘a heady dose of comedy and biting satire during a turbulent period in history, and in the process boosted the careers of Goldie Hawn, Lily Tomlin, and others.’  The Flying Fickle Finger of Fate award was used on the show, we are reminded, in a ‘recurring segment that “lauded” noteworthy, dubious achievements by celebrities or government officials. Recipients of this uncoveted award included then Los Angeles Chief of Police Ed Davis, who suggested that gallows be put in all airports so hijackers could be hung on the spot; the City of Cleveland for their Cuyahoga River (it caught fire due to its high pollution levels); and William F. Buckley for his philosophy “Never clarify tomorrow what you can obscure today”.’*

Television was not available to South Africans between 1968 and 1973 because, as Dr Albert Hertzog, the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs, kindly explained in 1959: ‘The effect of the wrong pictures on children, the less developed and other races can be destructive.’  But, once television had been introduced in 1976, there was an obvious need for those South Africans who had TVs to have their attention distracted from the vicious cruelties of apartheid outside their windows, and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was apparently (and often somewhat mistakenly) seen by the apartheid government as a politically inoffensive distraction.

All of which is something of a diversion from the path of the jet stream.  It is raining off-and-on again today, as it has been for most of the month.  This is because, as the weather forecasts have explained, and can be seen from the weather map above, the UK is caught in a low-pressure loop in the jet stream, and has been trapped in the same loop throughout this month.   Parts of the UK have had three times their average May rainfall already, and our average temperature has been two degrees centigrade below the May average.  This follows one of the driest, and certainly the frostiest, April on record with frosts somewhere in UK every night.     May 2020, by contrast, as I wrote in June last year, ‘was the driest May on record in England and the sunniest month ever, at least as far back as records go; this spring’s sunshine hours smashed the previous record by all of 70 hours, and have only been exceeded by summer sunshine hours in three previous years.’  So ‘fickle’ seems an appropriate word.

The extreme variations from year to year in UK suggest that something significant is going on weather-wise.  This would seem to be backed up by what appear to be increasingly extreme weather events around the globe.  Prolonged droughts leading to devastating wild fires, increasingly frequent and violent hurricanes and cyclones, and serious floods all come to mind.  In his 2003 book Inevitable Surprises Peter Schwartz doesn’t regard global climate change as being a surprise ‘because most of us (by now) have seen it coming’ (p.207).** Donald Trump hadn’t put his ornamental head above the political parapet by then.   But what will be a surprise, Schwartz suggests on the basis of analysis of the fossil record, will be the speed of its impact:  ‘The pattern is consistent: hundreds or even thousands of years of steady-state equilibrium.  Then an abrupt shift, in as short a time as a decade, can alter temperature and rainfall patterns, and ocean currents.’ (p.208)

So what could happen in the next decade that could provide us with a distraction from worrying about Covid-19?  As global temperatures rise, mainly as a result of human activity and the carbon emissions that activity produces, the polar ice caps and the glacial ice in Greenland are melting and cold freshwater is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean.  There is a serious possibility that this could result in the ocean currents being ‘forced into new patterns’, as Schwartz puts it.  Put more bluntly, it could arrest the flow of the Gulf Stream that warms North Eastern Europe.  This has apparently happened before – most recently around ten thousand years ago.  Schwartz quotes Dr Robert Gagosian’s suggestion as to what might happen next:  ‘Average winter temperatures could drop by 5 degrees Fahrenheit over much of the United States, and by 10 degrees in the North-eastern United States and in Europe.  That’s enough to send mountain glaciers advancing down from the Alps.  To freeze rivers and harbours and bind North Atlantic shipping lanes in ice…. These changes could happen within a decade, and they could persist for hundreds of years.’ (p.209)

Schwartz doesn’t claim that this particular manifestation of global climate change is ‘inevitable’, it is merely a distinct possibility.   But, given the manifest fickleness of our current weather patterns, those of us in UK who live on the front line where that particular manifestation of climate change is concerned had better not be fooled by talk of ‘global warming’ into packing our winter woollies too far away.  Speaking for myself, as I clean out the shed in preparation for its demolition, I will make sure not to throw away my good-as-new snow-shovel that hasn’t been needed even once in the past fifteen years.


* https://entertainment.ha.com/itm/movie-tv-memorabilia/props/-laugh-in-flying-fickle-finger-of-fate-award-broadcast-from-1968-to-1973-on-nbc-rowan-and-martin-s-laugh-in-provided-a/a/648-21045.s

** Peter Schwartz, Inevitable Surprises, London: Free Press, 2003.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘We’re all goin’ on a summer holiday’

21 May, 2021.

So who’s for a summer holiday? Confusion reigns among the climate gods as we move from winter directly to autumn with a vague gesture towards spring along the way, but so far with very little prospect of anything resembling summer. So a large portion of the UK population apparently wants to join Cliff Richard in ‘goin’ where the sun shines brightly … goin’ where the sea is blue.’

Tristan da Cunha

May 17th was the milestone along Johnson’s much-bruited roadmap to ‘freedom’ when international travel broke free from the bonds of illegality and, in one giant bound, became legal (with streamers of red tape attached), even if in almost all cases, according to Boris and some of his cabinet ministers, not generally advisable.   So confusion reigns there too.   And that is in spite of the elegant simplicity of the traffic light system, so much loved by those who govern us.   The minor problem with that elegant simplicity is that apparently roughly half the population (and half our cabinet) thinks that amber means ‘stop’, while the other half think it means ‘go’.  Clearly not so simple after all.  So as we explore the generous array of options for our summer holiday destination we will stick to the wholly uncomplicated green list, which incontestably means ‘Go’. 

After an inordinate delay, which greatly frustrated the travel industry, the finally published the Green List provided those in search of brightly shining sun and blue seas with a geographically widely dispersed range of twelve tempting options: Portugal, Israel, Iceland, Brunei, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, the Faroe Islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, St Helena, Tristan de Cunha and Ascension Island.   The only minor problem with this Green List was that for all of those destinations apart from Portugal our green list just happens to coincide with their Red Lists, or equivalents.   And the prospect of joining every other newly-released-from-lockdown Brit-in-search-of-the-sun heading for Portugal doesn’t, for some reason, hold a great deal of appeal. 

The best chance of hitting on an alternative Green List destination that won’t refuse entry on arrival would seem to be to identify somewhere really remote where they might not have heard that we have had one of the worst fatality rates from Covid per head of population in the entire world.  And the one thing that can be said in favour of the Green List is that for its size it is extremely well endowed with remote destinations, which have the added attraction after a year of isolation of not being overcrowded.  In that regard the choice would seem to come down to a straight contest between South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, on the one hand, and Tristan de Cunha on the other.  The fact that June and July just happen to be the dead of winter in the South Atlantic doesn’t necessarily mean that the sun won’t be shining brightly from time to time. 

Wanderlust.co.uk will confirm that where the South Georgia option is concerned the islands are, indeed, ‘very remote and isolated’.   So that particular criterion is met, and the website also provides a tempting list of all the things there are to do when you get there.  Top of the list is ‘communing with king penguins’.  That could be a full-time occupation, but if it palls for any reason you can also ‘immerse yourself in the history of the polar explorers and whalers in South Georgia’s museum’ and ‘visit the grave of Ernest Shackleton, whose body was returned to South Georgia to be buried.’   The only problem with a destination so loaded with irresistible attractions – unless you happen to be fussy enough not to fancy extended communion with penguin royalty, visiting whaling museums or making pilgrimages to graves – is that you can only visit via a cruise ship which, even were they currently sailing, might feel a bit crowded in the middle of a global pandemic.  Wherever they sail from won’t, in any case, be on the Green List. 

Tristan da Cunha, on the other hand, is the most remote inhabited island in the world and with only 270 inhabitants shouldn’t feel too overcrowded.  Apart from other islands in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, one of which appropriately enough is called Inaccessible Island, the nearest land is Saint Helena, over 1500 miles away. Wikivoyage will tell you that a visit requires careful planning because you can only get there by sea and the only boats that make the five to ten day (depending on which way the wind is blowing) 1800 mile trip from Cape Town (where you won’t be allowed in if you come from UK) are two fishing boats and the South African polar research ship the SA Agulhas.  The sun does shine brightly and the sea is blue in the Antarctic regions – though generally not in the middle of winter.    

You will need to be relatively flexible where timing is concerned when it comes to getting back to Cape Town (if they’ll have you by then) because, again according to Wikivoyage: ‘Visitors are the lowest priority for passage on vessels and may be forced to forfeit their passage to persons with a higher priority (medical evacuation, officials on official business, even locals leaving on holiday have higher priority).’  Wikivoyage doesn’t give a list of ‘things to do’ on Tristan de Cunha but, as there isn’t anything resembling a beach, rock-climbing appears from the photograph to be a good option (there must be a great view of sea from the top) and waiting for the next boat back to Cape Town would obviously be top of the list.  Also on the plus side, you won’t need a visa, just a Police Certificate and a letter of permission from the Tristan Government.  If you play your cards right you might even be able to get your fare paid by the Home Office if you let Priti Patel know that you are going to Tristan de Cunha to assess how suitable it would be as an alternative to Ascension Island or St Helena for the processing of UK asylum seekers.  

Some people, presumably those who don’t have much of a spirit of adventure, aren’t appreciative enough of the amount of careful thought that has obviously gone into the compiling of our government’s Green List of possible summer holiday destinations.  George Granville, the CEO of travel company Red Savannah, interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday went so far as to say ‘If you analyse the green list it is lunacy, it’s a sort of joke list.’   

It takes a rare talent to come up with a joke quite like this one. If you can stop laughing for a minute or two, spare a thought for those who work in our £148 billion a year travel industry.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The Wicked Witch of Witham’

“Home is not a place – it’s a feeling”?

May 5th

A week is often said to be ‘a long time in politics.’  That is usually intended to convey the idea that a great deal can happen in a mere seven days, but it can equally well mean that shameful stories about the same political dispensation and politicians can keep coming out day after day after day without making a blind bit of difference to anything.  Seldom does a day go past without another scathing critique in the Guardian or The Independent of some contemptible utterance, policy or appointment from our Home Secretary, Priti Patel.  But she just sneers serenely on her way. It is not for nothing that a recent Tory Secretary of State, Sir Alan Duncan, a Knight of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, no less, refers to her in his memoirs as ‘a nothing person, a complete and utter nightmare, the Wicked Witch of Witham’.*

On Wednesday last week, a cross-party group of MPs concluded that the Home Office should no longer be responsible for asylum accommodation because it was consigning asylum seekers to ‘totally inappropriate’ living conditions.  This conclusion backed-up a British Red Cross report that warned that asylum seekers were being forced to live in ‘unsafe, unsanitary and isolated’ accommodation that fell far short of expected standards.**  Having closed off all ‘authorised’ routes to asylum seekers, Patel appears intent on deporting all asylum seekers who arrive by ‘unauthorised routes’, in other words all asylum seekers, without anyone even bothering to consider the merits of their claims for asylum.

On Thursday, May Bulman reported in The Independent that cross-party MPs ‘have attacked Home Office plans that will see more trafficking survivors locked up in immigration detention and threatened with removal, warning that it is a “hugely retrograde step”.’ ***  As with the arbitrarily slashing of the Foreign Aid budget, the Government appears to recognise that this might not get the approval of Parliament and is accordingly using the undemocratic device of a ‘statutory instrument’ to drive the change through without formal legislation.  John McDonnell described the move in Parliament as a ‘disgraceful act of inhumanity’ and made the point that victims of trafficking could be deterred from trying to escape from their traffickers if that just meant that they were going to be detained and deported without further ado if they did manage to escape.

On Saturday, The Independent reported that the government is being urged to remove the Windrush compensation scheme from the Home Office as more than 500 Windrush victims have been waiting for more than a year for their claims for compensation to be assessed and paid.  To date only 20% of victims have received compensation, while the Home Office refuses to disclose the number of people who have died while waiting for compensation.  The Independent has established that at least nine such victims had died uncompensated by August.  Patrick Vernon, a campaigner for the Windrush victims, is reported by May Bulman as having ascribed this failure to ‘institutional racism in the conduct, behaviour and procedures of the Home Office staff and the executive and political leadership’.  This last certainly rings true where Priti Patel is concerned, even if ‘leadership’ rather overestimates her abilities.

On Tuesday The Independent reported that Priti Patel has appointed Robin Simcox, who recently worked for a Donald Trump linked think tank, as our new commissioner for countering extremism.****  Simcox is sceptical about islamophobia  – ‘a word used to limit the parameters of legitimate debate’ – and thinks Boris Johnson should be ‘wary’ about any internal investigation of possible ‘islamophobia’ in the Conservative Party.  As far as he is concerned the term ‘violent extremism’ was only ‘dreamed up as a way to avoid saying “Islamic” or “Islamist” extremism’, and defining ‘hate crime’ as offences motivated by hostility based on perceived race, religion, sexual orientation or disability is ‘far too broad’.  So our new commissioner for countering extremism is of the view that most extremism isn’t actually extremism.  So he should have a pretty easy life; as will our rapidly increasing number of far-right extremists. 

Last week I was one of tens of thousands of people who signed a petition opposing Priti Patel’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ on the grounds that it will: ‘put people at risk of being sent back to torture and persecution; make it more difficult for torture survivors to build a new life in the UK; prevent families from being reunited; and force torture survivors to live in inhumane conditions in isolated reception centres.’  But the petition won’t make any difference because, as John Rentoul pointed out in an article on Sunday debating whether Boris Johnson is a left-wing or right-wing Prime Minister (he concluded, astonishingly, that he is the most left-wing PM ever): ‘Even Patel’s absurd plan to build an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island had more support than opposition among the British public.’*****   It is this stampede to the right, encouraged in part by the rhetoric around Brexit, that anybody in England who cares about human rights is up against; and it is this that keeps Priti Patel in a job for which she would in the relatively recent past have been regarded as all too obviously wholly unsuitable. 


* https://metro.co.uk/2021/04/03/boris-named-embarrassing-buffoon-who-knew-nothing-about-brexit-14351922/?ito=cbshare

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-accommodation-home-office-b1838206.html

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/modern-slavery-trafficking-detention-mps-home-office-b1839121.html

**** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/extremism-commissioner-robin-simcox-islamophobia-b1832832.html

***** https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/editors-letters/boris-johnson-left-wing-tory-mp-b1840685.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The shame is on us’.

Every day is a bad-hair day

May 3rd

It is difficult to assess which of two starkly contrasting political environments results in the greater sense of frustrated impotence.   Being governed by the corrupt and ruthlessly authoritarian representatives of a racial minority who maintain their power through the violent suppression of a disenfranchised majority; or being governed by the corrupt and ruthlessly self-seeking representatives of an electorate based on universal adult franchise whose every worst instinct is assiduously cultivated by an alliance between untrustworthy politicians and unprincipled popular media.

In South Africa under apartheid one was up against an adamantine regime intent on suppressing any dissent as it bulldozed its way towards its racist goal of ‘separate development.’   In trying to resist that process in whatever minor ways one could one knew that it wasn’t going to make any kind of dent in the monolithic edifice of apartheid, but one could be confident that those efforts had the implicit support of the vast majority of the population, and there was some small, somewhat perverse, satisfaction in being woken at three 3am by telephoned death threats from Security Branch operatives which indicated that someone, somewhere, was taking some kind of notice – however intimidating that tended to feel.

Here, millions can take to the streets in protest against the invasion of Iraq or the stupidity of Brexit without it making a blind bit of difference.  One can blog and write letters to newspapers and speak from platforms without having to worry about exposing oneself to the risk of a minimum five year gaol sentence for saying something the government doesn’t approve of, for example expressing support for the ANC, but it feels as if one might as well be blowing bubbles to be wafted away on the wind. 

We have a contemptible government that can behave appallingly – cutting Foreign Aid in the middle of a global pandemic; treating asylum seekers with deliberate cruelty; being nonchalantly prepared to throw the Good Friday agreement to the dogs; lavishing rich contracts on incapable companies owned by their friends; cynically cultivating xenophobia along the road to Brexit; etc., etc., etc.  – in the certain knowledge that, however shamefully they behave, our predominantly right-wing media will continue to lap it all up, and will continue to hold sway over the electorate.

In a lengthy article on Friday titled ‘Scandal upon scandal: the charge sheet that should have felled Johnson years ago’, enumerating the seemingly endless list of scandals that should be being laid at Boris Johnson’s door, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland concluded: “Or maybe the real scandal lies with us, the electorate, still seduced by a tousled-hair rebel shtick and faux bonhomie that should have palled years ago.  Americans got rid of their lying, self-serving, scandal-plagued charlatan 100 days ago.  They did it at the first possible opportunity.  Next week, polls suggest we’re poised to give ours a partial thumbs-up at the ballot box.  For allowing this shameless man to keep riding high, some of the shame is on us.”*

The shame may well be on us, but saying so in the Guardian, or on a WordPress blog, isn’t going to make any difference.  It is a shame that appears to be felt even by some Tories, to judge by the rapidity with which Sir Alan Duncan, who only left politics in 2019, has been trying to cleanse himself of the smell, and wash off the stain, left by having been Johnson’s deputy during the latter’s embarrassment of a dally as Foreign Secretary with the Foreign Office.   Duncan’s description of Johnson in his recently published memoirs, as quoted by Jordan King in the Metro on Saturday, is less than flattering:  ‘I try to be the dutiful number two, but have lost any respect for him. He is a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgement. He is an international stain on our reputation. He is a lonely, selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot.’ **   

It feels much better to live in a country where Freedland, King and Duncan can freely say it as it is, and publish articles describing the Prime Minister in terms like ‘selfish, ill-disciplined, shambolic, shameless clot’, without being subjected to death threats, or worse, from the police (as distinct from the social media);  but it would be even better to live in a country whose electorate didn’t allow itself to be so easily and willingly seduced into supporting our very own ‘lying, self-serving, scandal-plagued charlatan.’


* https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/apr/30/scandal-charge-sheet-johnson-wallpaper-lying

** https://metro.co.uk/2021/04/03/boris-named-embarrassing-buffoon-who-knew-nothing-about-brexit-14351922/?ito=cbshare

From David Maughan Brown in York: May Day

Route to handy vaccination centre

May 1st

May Day.  Variously, and somewhat contradictorily, regarded by some people as a celebration of the fertility and fecundity of Spring, deriving in part from the Roman festival of the flowers, Floralia, and by others as marking the transition from Spring into Summer.   The day the cows could safely be put out to pasture because the winter was finally over.   Given that the April just passed has been the first on record to boast a damaging frost every single night of the month somewhere in the UK (in our case an allotment on Low Moor in York), the farmers may be getting cold feet on that score.  If they don’t, the cows certainly will as another frost is predicted for tonight.   There won’t be too many people dancing around May-poles today:  a 5,000- strong maskless rave in a very large tent has been scheduled as a government-sponsored Covid-19 infection trial, but there won’t be room for May poles.

The particular significance of the date for me is that it is now exactly three weeks since my second Covid-19 vaccination, so I am technically about 90% safe from being infected, give or take any of the global variants busily developing around the world in an effort to thwart that statistic as the pandemic rages on.  But I wouldn’t be dancing around a May pole even if there were one in the back garden.   Being vaccinated isn’t going to make much difference to the way I live my life for some time to come.  Nor was the vaccination experience itself a particularly celebratory occasion.

When I had my first vaccination I was given two different dates for the second one: Easter Sunday, 11 weeks after the first one, or the Saturday after that.  When I hadn’t received any formal notification reminding me about the second one by Good Friday, I set about trying to establish which was the correct date.  A long story later I was directed to a website which told me brusquely and entirely erroneously, with a disapproving virtual finger wagging in my direction, that I had missed the date for my second one already and needed to book another one.  It then offered me a generous array of vaccination sites to choose from, which didn’t include the York vaccination centre three miles away.  Distances, I am helpfully told, are measured in a straight line; roads in the UK tend to have the odd bend here and there.  The closest was the Rimmington Pharmacy in Bradford, said to be 29.8 miles away, which I assume must be owned by a Tory friend of one or another Tory MP or cabinet minister in Westminster.  If I didn’t fancy Bradford, there was an option in Hull 33.2 miles away, and one in Darlington 42.7 miles away.   Perusing the list, I was torn between the attractions of the one in Bishop Auckland (54.5 miles away) helpfully ‘located in-between care home and GP surgery’ and the one on Cemetery Road in Darwen, 59.5 miles away – in fact 73.7 miles away by the shortest route if one doesn’t happen to be a bird – but I decided I should enquire further.

Another long story later, the Saturday date was confirmed and I set off for my 9.00am appointment needing to get back home to chair the monthly u3a Saturday morning meeting by 10.15.  When I got to the front of the queue I was mysteriously, but full of misplaced optimism, directed to much the shorter of the two subsidiary queues of eager punters waiting to be summoned to a booth.  In spite of being much the shorter queue, ours was static:  when a dozen or so people had been called from the other queue, with no movement at all from ours, it became apparent that I had been told to come on a Pfizer day for my AstraZeneca injection.   Nine out of the ten booths were offering the Pfizer ones, the tenth appeared to be having difficulty with a patient who must, to judge by the time being taken, have been trypanophobic.   Soothing organ music in a mediaeval cathedral might have helped better with the stress levels than a noisy tent in a carpark, but I did eventually manage to get back in time to log in and chair the meeting.  So not particularly celebratory.

Yesterday an NHS envelope arrived inviting my 42 year-old son in Cape Town to make an appointment for his first vaccination.  I forwarded a photograph of it to him and invited him to drop in for tea on his way.   In the meantime my 44 year-old elder son received a similar letter in York a few days ago and has been trying unsuccessfully to take its advice and book a vaccination.   So far the nearest vaccination centre he has been offered is in Wakefield (32.4 miles away) – presumably at a Tory-owned pharmacy somewhere near a crematorium.   It would seem the vaccine is in relatively short supply and that the York centre is fully occupied trying to inject second vaccinations into the arms of older cohorts.  So why the rush to invite younger and younger groups of people to try their luck booking vaccinations when they are very hard to come by – the required age dropping a year or two every day or two?  The answer is painfully obvious:  there are local elections in a few days time and our cerebrally challenged electorate has somehow allowed itself to be persuaded that the success of the vaccination programme can be attributed to the government rather than the NHS.   It wasn’t the NHS that generously and in all seriousness offered me a vaccination in Darwen, 73.7 miles away.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘An affront to the conscience of the court’

April 26th

In spite of a range of well-known miscarriages of justice and cover-ups – the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, Hillsborough, to name a few – we tend to think of ourselves in UK as an example to the rest of the world of democracy, justice and general fair play.   We have even had a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities recently confirming for us that any institutional racism our country might ever have been guilty of has now miraculously evaporated.  Where things go wrong they can be attributed to a few bad eggs, not to any intrinsic institutional failures.  So it is with a combination of disbelief and impotent anger that one reads about the way sub-postmasters across the UK have been treated by the Post Office, the CPS, and our courts for the past 25 or so years in what has been described as ‘the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history’, a scandal brought back to mind by the Court of Appeal’s clearing of 39 sub-postmasters of theft, fraud and false-accounting last week.  It is just a shame that three of the sub-postmasters had already died before their names could be cleared.  

In 1999, the publicly owned Post Office rolled-out a new accounting system for its branches, ambitiously called Horizon, to every post office in the country.  For the next thirteen years, until 2012, the Post Office busily brought an average of one prosecution every week against one of its sub-postmasters for theft, fraud or false accounting – all on the strength of alleged accounting shortfalls revealed by the new Horizon programme.  A total of 736 sub-postmasters were prosecuted. They all denied the charges and said there was a problem with the Horizon software. In July 2013, a report commissioned by Second Sight, a firm of forensic investigators, established that there were, indeed, bugs in the Horizon system; another report, two years later in 2015, found no evidence of theft by postmasters, while whistle–blowers were reported by the Telegraph to have told the BBC that, exactly as the sub-postmasters were claiming, it was the software that was responsible for the missing cash.  In December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay 550 of the 736 sub-postmasters a total of £58 million as compensation for its wrongful prosecution.  It took until December 2020 for six of the 736 to have their convictions quashed at the Court of Appeal when the Post Office admitted that the original verdicts had been unsafe.*

So the lives of 736 families over the course of twenty years were ruined:  some of the sub-postmasters served time in gaol; some lost their life savings and were bankrupted; families broke apart as some were divorced; at least one committed suicide; many were abused by their former customers and had to move to live elsewhere; many had their health ruined; all had their reputations destroyed.  

A BBC report by Susie Rack in December 2019 outlines the stories of three of the sub-postmasters affected.**  Balvinder Singh Gill, from Oxford, found that his books simply would not balance and unaccountably showed ‘massive shortfalls’, with the result that he was accused of stealing £108,000 from the Post Office. He was, tellingly, informed that his was the only such case; he was threatened with prison if he didn’t pay it back; he ended up bankrupt and divorced; and he suffered a metal breakdown that led to his being sectioned. His mother was found guilty of stealing £57,000 from the same branch.  The family ended up working for the minimum wage in kitchens and petrol stations.   Wendy Buffrey, a former sub-postmistress from Cheltenham, is reported to have been advised to plead guilty to false accounting in 2010 to avoid jail, in spite of having always maintained her innocence, after a shortfall of £26,000 was identified in her accounts.  She was given 150 hours of community service instead, while having to pay back the money she was alleged to have stolen. She also lost her business and her home.   Rubbina Shaheen, from Shrewsbury, was accused of taking £43,000 from her branch – and ended up serving three months in jail – in spite of having identified at least 11 errors on the Horizon system to no avail.  She and her husband were both on suicide watch for a time and ended up in failing health and had to live in a van when Rubbina was released from prison.   The commissioners responsible for the recent report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities would no doubt claim that it was purely coincidental that the names of two out of the three families so disastrously affected by this scandal just happened to be names originating from the Indian sub-continent.  I rather doubt that Harjinder Butoy, a former sub-postmaster from Nottingham who was convicted of theft and jailed for three years and four months in 2008, would agree.

As early as December 2010 when Seema Misra, another noteworthy name, was given a 15-month jail sentence for theft, in spite of being pregnant, the judge acknowledged that there was ‘no direct evidence’ of theft, and ‘nothing incriminating’ at her home, just a discrepancy between cash reserves and the Horizon system.  In last week’s judgement on the 39, the Telegraph reports that ‘three senior judges said the company had “steamrolled” sub-postmasters in its pursuit of prosecutions, despite knowing there were serious questions over the reliability of Horizon.’  The judges had further declared that the ‘Post Office Limited’s failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases an affront to the conscience of the court.’

This begs a number of questions.  If the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases is an ‘affront’, as it obviously is, why were all 42 convictions, not just 39, that had been brought before the judges not overturned? Why, for that matter, were all 736 convictions not overturned by default?  Surely there should have been a presumption of innocence for all 736 after this finding? Why is it necessary for anyone to have to pay legal costs to have the remainder overturned?  When Bavinder Gill was told his was the only case, was that just a barefaced lie or was the Post Office itself not able to join up the dots?  Why were the police and the CPS also apparently unable to put two and two together and ask themselves what was going on when hundreds of sub-postmasters were being accused of theft and all were denying responsibility and pointing to the faulty software?  How could not a single one of 736 convictions, all based on flawed accounting software, have been averted by a forensic analysis of the Horizon accounting package? Where had Fujitsu, the developers of the software gone missing to while their software led to 736 wrongful convictions? Why was the Post Office, a public entity, allowed to spend £320,000 suing a sub-postmaster, Lee Castleton from Bridlington, for £25,000 he was falsely accused of stealing, despite his having called the Post Office’s helpline nearly every day for three months?*** Who, if anyone, is going to be held responsible for the hundreds of millions of pounds this is going to end up costing taxpayers as futile efforts are belatedly made to compensate those victims who are still alive for the way their lives have been ruined by a deplorable phalanx of institutional failures?

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* https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/04/23/post-office-scandal-39-former-subpostmasters-have-names-cleared/

** https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-50747143

*** https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-51446463

From David Maughan Brown in York: Wind and fire

Jagger Library Reading Room: Before
During
After

April 21st

It was with a visceral sense of shock and loss that I watched video footage of buildings on the upper campus of the University of Cape Town, and the Jagger Library in particular, going up in flames over the weekend.  A ‘vagrant’s’ cooking fire had got out of control on the slopes of the mountain above the university, a strong North Westerly ‘Berg’ wind had blown the flames down through the tinder-dry brush and the pine trees on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, consuming the restaurant at the Rhodes Memorial, and on down the mountain to set fire to a number of university buildings, including two of the residences and the Jagger Library.  The fire jumped De Waal drive and destroyed Mostert’s Mill, one of the best known landmarks in Cape Town, built in 1796 and until Sunday the oldest surviving mill in South Africa.   4,000 students had to be evacuated from the campus.  There was a lull in the wind on Sunday evening before it changed direction to become a violent South Easterly that blew the fire round the flank of Devil’s Peak and onto the lower slopes of Table Mountain, threatening the suburbs above the Cape Town city centre.

The library collection dates back to 1829.  My mother went to UCT in the late 1920s; three of my four siblings and I were students there in the 1960s and early 1970s; all three of my children and two of their partners were students there in the 1990s.   Apart from my mother, who lived in one of the residences that caught fire but who was a student before the Jagger Library was completed, we will all have spent time in that library, so the loss feels directly personal.  

Although the full extent of the losses and damage has still to be assessed, it is clear that much of the African Studies collection, housed in the reading room, including the entirety of its film collection has been lost.  A loss I feel particularly acutely as a former Professor of African Literature. The film collection was the most extensive one of its kind anywhere, with over 3,000 films available for research and viewing.  Fire doors and shutters were triggered and did come down to shut off parts of the university’s collections, but it is not yet known how much damage has been done by the intense heat.  It can only be hoped that the collection of very rare books has survived.  This includes, by way of example, a copy of a 1535 Dutch Bible, believed to be the oldest in South Africa, in an edition that was suppressed with almost all the copies burned and the publisher condemned to death for its publication, and a copy of the first book to contain photographic illustrations, William Henry Fox Talbot’s Pencil of Nature, published in 1844.  The oldest book in the collection is said to be by a first century Roman historian and moralist, Valerius Maximus, titled Facta et dicta memorabilium, published in Mainz in 1471 by Peter Schöffer, who took over Gutenberg’s press.    So there was, and one hopes still is, much to treasure.

The botany building that houses the Bolus Herbarium, the oldest functioning herbarium in South Africa, was also seriously damaged.  Although the herbarium appears to have survived, the Plant Conservation Unit, where researchers tracked changes in climate by studying fossilized pollen and comparing historical photos with current-day images, has, according to the unit’s leader Timm Hoffman, a historical ecologist, been totally destroyed.

South Africa is one of the countries of the world in line to be worst affected by climate change.  The last time we visited Cape Town, some 18 months ago, the Cape Peninsula was just coming out of a three year drought so bad that at one point the entire city had come within four weeks of having the water mains shut down, and as adults we were effectively rationed to using 35 litres of water a day.   The winter that followed saw ‘normal’ rainfall re-established and enabled the dams and reservoirs to fill up again, but the summer just ending has been very hot and dry and the temperature on Sunday was an unseasonal 36 degrees centigrade.  Given the prolonged period of drought, and the backdrop of global warming, one might have expected additional precautions to have been taken to protect the University campus from wildfires on the mountain by extending the firebreaks, but this would appear not to have happened.  There have been very many wildfires on the slopes above the university since the first buildings were erected on its current site more than a hundred years ago, and none has ever affected the university badly before, but the point about global warming is that events such as this are becoming increasingly likely, which makes suitable measures to combat them the more imperative.

The University of Cape Town is, by all measures, Africa’s premier university.  I find myself wondering whether the absence of any coverage of the devastating damage caused by this wildfire from any of the news broadcasts I have seen here, in stark contrast to the coverage of the wildfires in Australia and California in recent years, can be attributed to the fact that this wildfire didn’t kill anyone, although several fire-fighters have been injured, to the fact that it only damaged a university rather than much in the way of residential property, or simply because Africa is perceived not really to matter much.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of flames and ashes

Belfast in flames again

April 15th

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.