From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

December 16th

On the 24th November, a whole month before Christmas Eve, the UK government (read government of England), under extreme pressure from the libertarian loons on its back benches, who regard any restrictions on their freedom to do whatever they like as an unwarranted imposition, corralled the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into agreeing to a five-day Christmas ‘amnesty’ from whatever Covid19 restrictions the devolved governments happened to have in place at the time.  The national November lockdown was about to end, but the three-tier system was destined immediately to be re-imposed, and it was assumed that the virus would be sufficiently suppressed by then for there to be no problem with families being allowed to travel the length and breath of the UK to join two other families for overnight stays between 23rd and 27th December for a close-to-‘normal’, no doubt boozy, Christmas knees-up.  Extra trains are being laid on; extra time for travel to Northern Ireland is being allowed; all stops, apart from the one that says STOP, are being pulled out.

Strangely enough, the virus didn’t just remain unsuppressed and unimpressed by the November lockdown, it went into overdrive: it has not only increased its infection rates exponentially in the three weeks since the amnesty decision, but has spun-off a Southern Counties mutation which appears, although the science is still out on this, to be even more infectious than the original is.   So greater London and parts of adjacent counties have been elevated from Tier 2 to Tier 3 exactly seven days before an amnesty that lifts their newly imposed restrictions kicks in.   Chocolate fire-screens come to mind.  Whether or not the virus is equity-minded and made a mental note that no cognisance whatever had been given by the powers that be to Eid, or Diwali, or Holi, or Hannukah, Covid19 is not going to regard Christmas as a season of goodwill to all mankind and take a break from its job of infecting anyone rash enough let it anywhere near.

If the virus is certain to be unimpressed by the Christmas amnesty, so is the medical profession, as represented in particular by the editors of the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal who view the approaching amnesty with such trepidation that they have published a joint editorial for only the second time in 100 years.  In similar manner to President-elect Joe Biden’s excoriating demolition of Donald Trump’s undermining of US democracy as soon as the electoral college had formally approved his election, the editorials don’t pull their punches where the UK government is concerned: ‘The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn…. We believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives.  If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be “protecting the NHS”.’  The joint editorial predicts that, even without the time-lag between the inevitable Christmas amnesty infections and consequent hospitalisations, by January 1st there will already be as many patients with coronavirus in UK hospitals as there were at the height of the first wave in April.

So will the UK government respond to the increasing pressure and change its mind about the wisdom of its amnesty? Not a chance. They always ‘follow the science’ – just as long as the science suits their short-term political interests.  They are running too scared of the loons, whose numbers are sufficient to annihilate the Tories’ 87 seat majority, and no Tory government, never mind one elected with a ‘land-slide’ majority barely 12 months ago, likes having to rely on Labour votes to get its legislation through parliament. True to their tradition of hopelessly muddled, and often contradictory messaging, the government is maintaining the amnesty in law but strongly advising people not to make use of it: Boris Johnson is wishing everyone a ‘Merry Little Christmas’ and implicitly granting the NHS a potentially overwhelmed and not at all happy new year.  In the meantime the Welsh part of the ‘United Kingdom’ is changing the legal limit to allow only two families to meet, and the Scottish part is strongly advising against any overnight stays and against meeting for more than one day.

Boris Johnson and his equally out-of-their-depth chums would, of course, deny that it is in any way contradictory.  It was Mr Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, whose turn it was to be the ventriloquist’s dummy justifying government policy on the Today programme yesterday.  Asserting that you “can’t legislate for every eventuality” he expressed the libertarians’ total confidence that people could be relied on to “weigh up the risks to their own loved ones” and “exercise their own good judgement” about their Christmas plans.   You couldn’t expect a ventriloquist’s dummy to realize that that makes a complete nonsense of putting 38 million people into Tier 3 today, and, indeed, of maintaining any kind of Tier system at all.  The entire rationale for having any restrictions can only be that people can’t, in fact, exercise their own good judgement.   

From David Maughan Brown in York: Tactical distractions

October 26th

The BBC news this morning greeted the new week with breathless excitement.   A tanker had been hi-jacked in the English channel; the hi-jackers were seven Nigerian stowaways ‘believed to be seeking asylum in the UK’; four helicopters had undertaken a daring mission in the dark; sixteen heavily armed members of the Special Boat Services (SBS) had abseiled down onto the tanker; and ‘with overwhelming force quickly regained control of the vessel.’   Anyone sufficiently excited by the cinematic drama to turn to Google to establish precisely who our heroes from the SBS might be will be instantly enlightened by the ITV website: it is, we are told, ‘a highly covert elite maritime anti-terrorist unit of the Royal Navy.’

My immediate response to this as the BBC’s first news story of the day, still sleepy as I was, was to detect a distinct smell of rat.  I lived too long in South Africa under apartheid to have any confidence whatever in the truth or motives of the national broadcaster, and the past decade of Tory government has instilled in me an equivalent level of cynicism when it comes to any story obviously put out by government ministers.   The whiff of rodent gathered strength as the details of the story started to come out and it became clear that the SBS assault had been ordered by our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, along with her more junior colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.   

The seven stowaways had omitted to take with them the explosives or firearms that might have justified the expense of helicopters and elite ant-terrorist troops, and were unarmed, although this apparently hadn’t deterred the crew from taking refuge in the ‘safe place’ always provided on tankers in case of hi-jackings.  Various versions of the story had the crew being threatened with ‘broken glass’, ‘knives and other sharp objects they had picked up’, and scary ‘verbal abuse.’  The captain, rather significantly one might have thought in the context of a ‘hi-jacking’, remained in control of the tanker’s bridge throughout.   The seven targets of the elite anti-terrorist unit couldn’t have stowed away with the intention of seeking asylum in the UK because they could apparently have had no idea when they boarded the ship in Lagos where it would be heading.  Patel subsequently praised the SBS for its ‘swift and decisive action’, but one wonders how it could have taken 16 heavily armed SBS operatives all of 9 minutes to ‘regain control of the vessel’.

The evidence is stacking up to the point where one doesn’t need to be an irredeemable cynic to assume, until it is demonstrated otherwise, that everything anybody associated with this government ever does (with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak) is either hopelessly incompetent or done with dishonest and deceitful intent.   Presenting the seven stowaways as dastardly ‘asylum seekers’ all too obviously plays into Patel’s racist anti-immigration rhetoric.  But the whole dramatic spectacle of the heavily armed SBS warriors abseiling down onto the tanker under cover of darkness bears a remarkable similarity to the 250-strong raid on the terrace house in Forest Gate in east London in 2006 that I wrote about on July 29th.  In that case the police knew that the intelligence the raid was based on was extremely dubious and that the ‘bomb’ which the 15 heavily armed men, kitted out in their chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection suits were searching for, almost certainly didn’t exist, but the police were ordered by the politicians to conduct the raid regardless.   Here, the 16 SBS men will almost certainly have known that the 7 stowaways weren’t armed in any serious sense of the word.  In both instances sledgehammers and gnats come to mind.

So what were these overkill spectaculars all about?  In the Forest Gate case, a training exercise, a message that the government was taking anti-terrorist action seriously, and a distraction.  The report on the police’s extra-judicial murder on the London tube of the Brazilian plumber, Jean Charles de Menezes, was due to be published imminently, and the media needed to be given something else to focus on.   Apart from playing to Patel’s virulent anti-immigrant agenda, today’s tanker-hijacking story was no doubt similarly designed to distract the media’s attention, however briefly, from a range of political awkwardnesses: the very strong criticism by a large segment of the legal profession of Patel’s and Johnson’s attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ in the immigration and asylum context; the continuing disaster of the Government’s hopeless mishandling of Track and Trace; and the equally self-mutilating stupidity of Boris Johnson’s continuing refusal to support the continuation of school meals.  Take your pick.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Universities

October 9th

It won’t be entirely coincidental that ‘the first of the new wave of alternative [Higher Education] poviders’, as the Guardian puts it, to be granted its own degree awarding powers is the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology founded by Sir James Dyson (note the honorific) and established as recently as 2017.  Dyson is a Tory donor who heads the UK ‘Rich list’ and was appointed to the Order of Merit in 2016.  An ardent Brexiteer who thinks the UK should just ‘walk away’ from negotiations with the EU (in spite of having called on the UK government in 1998 to join the Eurozone as soon as possible), Dyson is so confident of the UK’s future financial and commercial wellbeing outside the EU that he has moved his company’s ‘titular’ (Dyson’s word) headquarters to Singapore. 

In recognition of this momentous landmark for Higher Education – colleges of technology with 150 undergraduates, who are only expected to study a single discipline for two days a week, haven’t previously been granted degree awarding powers, particularly not after being in existence for a mere three years – Dyson was interviewed by Nick Robinson on the Today programme to mark the occasion.  Nick Robinson has the very big advantage of not being John Humphrys, whose role as the very conservative Today attack dog was presumably intended to demonstrate the political illiteracy of those who imagine the BBC to be left-wing – but there was no need for Robinson, even as a mere commoner, to be quite so deferential to this particular Knight of the Realm.  

In the course of the interview both Nick Robinson and Dyson referred to Dyson’s Institute as a ‘University’.  Although it would certainly help, one doesn’t need to go back to Cardinal Newman or Wilhelm von Humboldt these days to get a general idea of what a university is.   Were they to take the trouble to Google “What is a university?” it would take twenty seconds, literally, for Robinson and Dyson to discover that, according to www.dictionary.com, a university could reasonably be considered to be ‘an institution of learning of the highest level, having a college of liberal arts and a program of graduate studies together with several professional schools, as of theology, law, medicine, and engineering, and authorized to confer both undergraduate and graduate degrees.’   The same 20 seconds would inform them, were they to be interested, that the purpose of a university, this time according to www.pearson.com, is to be ‘the guardian of reason, inquiry and philosophical openness, preserving pure inquiry from dominant public opinions.’   However good it may well be at what it does, Dyson’s Institute is not a university.

All of which serves to remind me, if I needed any reminding, just how thankful I am that I am no longer involved in any way in the thankless task of trying to manage a university, and maintain the values remarkably well articulated in the fifteen-word quotation from Pearson, in 21st Century England.  The relentless passage of transient Ministers given responsibility for Higher Education since the turn of the century, most of whom seemed to think that having been an undergraduate qualified them to know how to run a university, and all of whom were anxious to leave their idiosyncratic mark on the sector before being moved on to something regarded as more important than Higher Education, has contributed towards universities being viewed as little more than soullessly utilitarian degree factories.  National league tables, incapable of recognising value-added, and self-evidently designed to perpetuate the elitism of the so-called “top” universities, have reinforced this.  Research metrics that focus on ‘impact’ and do anything but ‘preserve pure inquiry from dominant public opinions’ don’t help. So when one of said past Ministers, our esteemed Prime Minister’s brother Jo, asks James Dyson “Why don’t you start your own university?’’, as recounted by Nick Robinson, and Dyson sets up his Institute by way of a response, Dyson and Robinson are both able to think of it as, indeed, being a university.

I particularly don’t envy university Vice-Chancellors and their teams the quandary they have found themselves in as a result of the pandemic.   Having spent more than forty years of my life working with students, it always seemed certain to me that bringing students back onto campus at this juncture was bound to be asking for coronavirus trouble.  But most Vice-Chancellors will know that distance learning involves a whole lot more than simply asking their lecturers to put their lectures up on the web, and will be only too well aware that they are simply not equipped to do an adequate job of going fully digital, not even for one semester.   The creeping privatisation of the university sector has resulted in most of our universities being almost wholly dependent on fee income, and many will be facing bankruptcy if student numbers drop dramatically, or they have to discount their fees substantially.   Many universities are not coming out of the present government-induced shambles very well, but in the absence of anything resembling a coherent policy for higher education in present circumstances, it isn’t easy to see how, beyond making provision for quarantined students to have hot meals, they could have done very much better.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Hulk or Home Office?

October 2nd

What is being contemplated with regard to asylum-seekers unwise enough to think that England’s green and pleasant land might be a desirable destination is becoming simultaneously clearer, murkier, and much darker.   It seems from a couple of interviews in yesterday’s edition of the BBC’s Today programme and a report in the Guardian that it isn’t just our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who would really, really, really like to find a way of getting rid of pesky asylum-seekers by transporting them to Ascension Island (or, one gathers, St Helena) in the South Atlantic, but the Cabinet Office and “Downing Street” as a whole (i.e. Dominic Cummings with Boris Johnson in tow).  There is a move afoot, according to a Guardian source, to “radically beef-up the hostile environment” in 2021 as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end.  The Windrush disgrace and our government’s declared intention to ignore international law where Brexit is concerned have apparently not done enough damage to our increasingly wafer-thin international reputation.

A smorgasbord of options other than rocky islands in the South Atlantic has apparently been put before civil servants to consider in a despairing effort to keep asylum-seekers off our sceptred isle. The options are said to include Morocco, Moldova, Papua New Guinea (only twice as far away as Ascension Island), disused oil-rigs, and ships anchored off-shore.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  The cunning wheeze of using disused ships to house prisoners was conceived in the 18th century, as anyone who has read Great Expectations and made the acquaintance of the escaped convict Abel Magwitch will know.   Permanently moored prison ships, known as ‘hulks’, were never one of the hallmarks of a civilized society and their use was discontinued in 1856 because they were regarded as inhumane.   But the hallmark of Conservative parties is, of course, to conserve the past.

Adam Holloway, very Conservative MP for Gravesham in Kent, made it clear when interviewed by the Today programme that Patel’s and Downing Street’s object in considering these literally outlandish schemes is to provide ‘some sort of deterrent’ to discourage asylum-seekers from wanting to come to the UK.   Putting them in the stocks or giving them public floggings for having the temerity to think that England might be a good place to seek refuge from persecution and torture might seem a bit too strong by way of a deterrent for all but the retired colonels in the shires.  So what about a nice “detention centre” in the sunshine of Morocco, for example?  You wouldn’t need to go back historically as far as the hulks, the archives will be sure to have kept the blue-prints for our Anglo-Boer war concentration camps.  If you are planning to outsource your interviews with asylum-seekers anyway, you could outsource them to locals in Morocco – think how much cheaper that would be.  If you are aiming at the 99% failure rate of the much lamented “fast-track” process, it wouldn’t matter if the locals couldn’t speak the asylum-seekers’ language and didn’t know anything about asylum law – it would be easy enough to make sure UK journalists couldn’t get anywhere near the concentration camps.  It’s been done before. Of course, even if you were to intercept the asylum-seekers in the English Channel before they arrived in England, you would need to break international asylum laws by taking them ashore to an airport in order to deport them to Morocco, or wherever else, without assessing their claims first, but we are soon going to be an independent sovereign state, so, once again, to hell with international law.

I find myself wondering why I find all this so deeply depressing.   It isn’t so much because of its callous inhumanity towards people so desperate to find a home here, and in some instances join family here, that they are prepared to put to sea in inflatable swimming pools.  Xenophobia and inhumanity is what one has long come to expect of the Conservative party.  It isn’t so much the utterly absurd and impractical options that have been put forward by Patel and “Downing Street” more generally for serious consideration by civil servants.  That is entirely in line with the wholly fanciful, and ultimately delusional, construction of a United Kingdom better off economically and politically outside the European Union – the Conradian “fixed idea” that obsesses the Brexiteers. What is probably the most depressing aspect of this whole sorry business is the extent to which it lays bare the apparently irredeemable shortsightedness of our politics.   The asylum-seekers who are taking to small boats and enriching the people smugglers are only doing so because more conventional ways of getting here are closed off to them.   They are showing themselves to be courageous, determined and resilient.  Most of them happen to be young; many have skills that are needed here.  I’ve made the point before, but it seems particularly pertinent here.  Who, precisely, do Johnson, Patel and rest think is going to be driving our economy in 30 years time as our population growth declines and our current workforce grows old?  Who, for that matter, will be left to look after them in their old age once their fatal combination of xenophobia and negligence has decimated our Health and Care sectors?  Better surely to offer genuine, which means competently assessed, asylum-seekers a home rather than consigning them to concentration camps in the desert or the modern equivalent of the hulks.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Send them Home Office

September 30th

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”   The words of Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, come to mind – not in relation to old age burning and raving at the close of day, although there is no doubt a bit of that – but in the context of the liberal values our country has tried to uphold for so long being slowly but steadily extinguished.  This is a process that has been gathering momentum ever since the attack on the twin towers in 2001.

Following another of the more or less daily revelations about the Home Office that I wrote about in my entry for September 26th, today’s editorial in The Independent  draws readers’ attention to the malign intentions towards refugees and asylum-seekers articulated in the Tory manifesto at the last election, which included a commitment to reform the Human Rights Act, impose limitations on judicial review, and abandon the EU Dublin convention which establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for examining an asylum claim made in the EU.  As if that weren’t enough, the editorial also suggests that the Tories are considering passing a new law that would override “the UK’s treaty obligations under the 1950 European Human Rights Convention”, which would be another transgression of international law.

Yesterday’s revelation, again from the pen of May Bulman, was about an unnamed Ugandan woman who this week finally won her case against the Home Office for rejecting her asylum claim, made on the grounds that she is lesbian, that gay relationships are illegal in Uganda and that she would have been under threat of harm had she stayed in Uganda.  She arrived in the UK in 2011 to seek asylum but was, unsurprisingly, one of the 99% of applicants who fell foul of the Home Office’s “fast-track system” for assessing asylum applications, whereby applicants were kept in detention and allowed two weeks to obtain the evidence necessary to back their claim for asylum.  Her case was rejected on the grounds that whoever interviewed her on behalf of the Home Office didn’t believe she was gay.  The system was discontinued in 2015 following a High Court ruling that it was ‘structurally unfair’, but the applicant in question had already been deported back to Uganda in December 2013.  Once she was back in Uganda, her fears were fully realised when she was gang raped – presumably an example of the appalling crime known, in South Africa at least, as “corrective rape” – and ended up pregnant.  The High Court ruled last year that her deportation was unlawful as she had not had enough time to obtain the evidence necessary to support her case, and simultaneously ruled that her detention had been unlawful.

This might all be regarded as past history – after all, that particular system was discontinued in 2015 – but for the fact that it required a High Court decision last year before she was allowed back to the UK, and, even then, the Home Office appealed the High Court’s decision so that it had to go to the Appeal Court this year.  Anyone who might be inclined to interpret the Home Office’s behaviour in this regard as being gratuitously and viciously vindictive would be vindicated by the fact that, believe it or not, the Home Office is reported to be considering appealing once again, this time against the Appeal Court’s decision.  Being gang-raped is obviously not enough to indicate that an asylum–seeker is in some danger.

If this incident seems indicative of more than a little madness on the part of whoever makes such decisions in the Home Office, today’s further revelation suggests a seriously dangerous level of insanity.  It is reported, both on the BBC’s Today programme this morning and in The Independent, that our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has in all seriousness been contemplating flying asylum seekers out to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic – a rocky island in the South Atlantic 4000 miles from UK with 800 inhabitants – to have their applications processed.  If Robben Island, a mere 5 miles from apartheid South Africa’s mainland, was far enough to stop prisoners from absconding, 4000 miles should do the trick for the Tories.  This is the kind of story that any half-intelligent newspaper editor would reject as being too obviously implausible to fill the annual April Fools slot in the April 1st edition.  Quite so – but the mad Patel apparently thinks it could be a goer.  This is taking things a lot further even than Theresa May’s ill-judged 2013 “Go Home” billboards, and smacks of a slavish attempt to imitate Australia’s inhume incarceration of asylum seekers on Nauru island in Papua New Guinea.   Patel must either be verifying the purity of the drugs her police force is confiscating, or she must be so xenophobic as to be comprehensively insane.  Either way, Boris Johnson would be wise to get rid of her – preferably to Ascension Island – as soon as possible.  But when was Boris ever wise?

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Suffer the little children…’

August 5th

Yesterday morning’s BBC Today programme featured an interview with Charleen Jack-Henry, an NHS nurse whose daughter, Nicole, left with her husband and three children to join ISIS in Syria five years ago.  Nicole’s husband and eldest son, Isaac, by then nine years-old, were killed in the conflict and Nicole and her three remaining children, all under 12, have ended up, ‘abandoned by the British government’, as the children’s grandmother says, in a Syrian refugee camp, like Shamima Begum whom I wrote about on 17th July, .  The report indicated that there are around 80 British citizens (or ex-British citizens if, like Shamima Begum, they have had their citizenship arbitrarily terminated) in such camps, most of whom are women and children.  Our Conservative government apparently pays lip-service to the idea that children are innocent, but has so far managed only to repatriate three British orphans from Syria.  Irrespective of the innocence of the children, any parent who has gone to join ISIS must, by definition, be so serious a threat to national security that she must be kept out of the country at all costs, literally, as demonstrated by our craven government’s desperate attempt to overturn the Appeal Court’s verdict that Shamima Begum be allowed to return to UK to present her case.

What, exactly, is our government so frightened of?  Are they, newly ‘independent’, incapable of doing anything that might not win the approval of the frothing reactionaries of The Sun and its ilk? Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act of 2015, which they themselves passed into law, relates to ‘Controlling or Coercive Behaviour’.   If they can recognise the existence of such behaviour, how do they know that Nicole Jack wasn’t coerced by her husband into going to Syria, or doesn’t that matter?  That could be assessed by a court of law on her return, if they weren’t too scared to allow her back.  Even if she went to Syria willingly, how do they know that the harrowing experiences she has been through won’t have enlightened her?  Does their theology not allow for any possibility of redemption?  Or do they suspect that the prison system for which they are responsible is entirely incapable of reforming anyone?  In which case what are they doing about it?  As the children’s Trinidadian step-grandmother, via Nicole’s second marriage, says: ‘If you leave kids in a place where violence is normalised, they can’t have a normal life.’  Charleen Jack-Henry’s own wistful plea for her grandchildren is: ‘Don’t we owe these children a duty of care?’  Don’t we?

Our arrogant, self-absorbed government has a lot to learn from the supposedly ‘third world’ countries it looks down on from its ‘global Britain’ pinnacle.   The Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, Faris Al-Rawi, is much less terrified of the Trinidadian women and children currently languishing in Syrian refugee camps, in spite of the roughly 130 men who left Trinidad to join ISIS and are now said to be ‘desperate to return.’  Al-Rawi recognises that under international law Trinidad is obliged to take them back – ‘we must have our citizens returned to our country’ – and is introducing new terror laws to allow them back.  These laws are designed, he says, ‘so that we can buffer their return, receive them into a safe zone so that we can actually debrief, investigate and reacclimatise our citizens into life in Trinidad and Tobago in a responsible way.’  It would be good if ‘global Britain’ could have a global government of all the talents.  I suggested some time ago that Jacinda Ardern would make an excellent Prime Minister, perhaps she could choose Faris Al-Rawi as her Attorney-General.  He sounds to be unlikely to run scared of The Sun, and would appreciate the poignancy and truth of the words of the children’s Trinidadian grandmother: ‘I can’t see a four year-old boy being a terrorist.’