From David Maughan Brown in York: Politicians vs Polecats

Unimpressed

June 16th 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: ‘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: An “unfussy” funeral.

All alone

April 20th

One didn’t need to be a Royalist to be moved by images of the Queen sitting on her own, bowed with age, at the funeral of a husband to whom she had been married for 73 years, or to feel that the numerous accolades for the Duke of Edinburgh’s loyalty, dedication and public service through all those years were fully merited.   The funeral service had by all accounts been meticulously planned by the Duke himself, and in terms of its relative brevity and lack of sermonising, as well as the beauty of the music, it would, one assumes, have met with his no doubt somewhat sardonic approval had he been around to watch it.   The sound of the bagpipes playing ‘The Flowers of the Forest’, fading as the lone piper slow-marched out of the chapel while the Duke’s coffin was lowered into the vault, will live long in the memory.

We listened to the funeral service in the car on the way back to York after taking advantage of a perfect Spring day to meet with my daughter’s family for a released from lock-down picnic at Nostell Priory, a National Trust property near Pontefract, and then watched the televised broadcast in the evening.   Where the music was concerned I was particularly struck by the beauty and appropriateness of the exquisitely sung ‘Russian Kontakion for the Departed’ which I hadn’t heard for the better part of sixty years, and which Prince Philip had presumably chosen in part as a nod towards his mixed European, including Russian, ancestry.   It brought back memories of my time in the ‘Special Choir’ at boarding school in Cape Town where we were each paid 2/6 for singing at weddings and funerals in the school chapel, not caring particularly whether we were taking part in a ‘matching’ or ‘dispatching’ ceremony as long as we were able to double our weekly pocket-money on the strength of a couple of hours of practice, often of the Russian Kontakion, and the sacrifice of part of a Saturday afternoon – the only times I came anywhere close to being a professional singer.

The commentators made much of the ‘ordinariness’ of the Queen’s funeral experience under lockdown:  the lonely widow, sitting by herself without the close support of her family, with attendance at the funeral restricted to the Covid regulation limit of 30, rather than the five to eight hundred who might have been expected at a funeral that hadn’t had to be ‘scaled-down.’  But this was, of course, no ‘ordinary’ funeral.   The ‘chapel’ in which it was held is large enough to be a cathedral, even if the ‘choir’ only consisted of four singers.   Ordinary funerals, ‘scaled-down’ or not, don’t feature 700 members of the armed services lined up in socially-distanced ranks awaiting the arrival of the funeral procession.   Most people, for that matter, don’t get to design their own hearse.   For somebody who, we were repeatedly told, ‘didn’t like a fuss’, there was quite a bit of fuss not to like, much of which the Duke had planned for himself – which is not to suggest that the fuss was not appropriate as a send-off for someone who had spent a life dedicated to public service of the highest order.   

To the extent that Covid-19 necessitated the foregoing of the pomp and circumstance of a funeral with over 500 assorted guests, the Duke of Edinburgh might well have been pleased to have a pandemic-affected departure.  There was certainly less fuss than there otherwise would have been.   The Queen might well also not have been too unhappy to be obliged to endure the funeral without close family beside her if the upside was that she also didn’t have to survive the sight and sound of a repugnantly self-absorbed Prime Minister using the occasion for self-display.  Of all the 14 Prime Ministers of the UK whom the Queen has seen come and go during her reign, Boris Johnson is the one whose total lack of principle or morality she is likely to have found most at odds with her own, and her husband’s, principled dedication to public service.

The funeral provided some interesting insights into the quirkiness of British ceremonial tradition.   Three struck me in particular.  The first was the way in which the decision not to allow the mourners to wear military uniform – which we were allowed to understand was to spare the blushes of Prince Harry who has been stripped of his – resulted in the rows of medals standing out much more prominently against the background of the dark suits and coats on which they were worn than they would have on uniforms.  Rows and rows of medals, most of which, one could only assume from looking at the somewhat motley array of mourners, had been awarded in recognition of the great favour those sporting them had done to the world by having granted it the favour of allowing themselves to be born into it.  The second was the Garter Principal King of Arms’s proclamation of ‘the styles and titles of HRH The Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh’, most of which the Prince had presumably acquired as a result of whom he had married, dressed in a tailored Royal Standard that made him look like the King (if not the Joker) from a pack of up-market playing cards.   Lastly, the fact that the ‘Lady-in-waiting’ who supported the Queen by accompanying her in the car to the funeral, the only one of the 67 or so million population of the UK who was with her to offer that support at that exceptionally difficult moment in her life, wasn’t even allowed the dignity of a name in the commentary – she was a mere functionary.  So, for that matter, was the Garter Principal King of Arms, but who needs a name when you can wear a fancy-dress costume like that?

The funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh also offered interesting insights into our society and culture more generally.   One was the extent of the media obsession with the detail of the lives of the royal family: which of the ‘senior’ royals, for example, had allegedly snubbed Harry at the funeral, and why their cousin Philip had been placed between the two princes in the funeral procession, but then deferentially hung back about eighteen inches behind them.  Why would anyone care?   Another was the very many thousands of pounds that had been spent helping florists out of their Covid-induced financial slump by the laying of thousands of bouquets outside royal residences, only for them to be taken into the grounds, piled up and, presumably, composted, the majority of their messages of condolence unappreciated.   Couldn’t the money have been better spent by one of the late Duke’s many charities?  Perhaps most bizarre of all, the large numbers of royalists, crowded together in their maskless lack of herd immunity behind the barriers lining the roads along which the funeral procession had never been destined to process.  Why were they there, adorned in their jingoistic accoutrements, unable to see anything whatever of what was going on, in spite of all the earnest requests from those to whom they were supposedly paying deferential homage to ‘stay away’?   Because, they said, they ‘just had to be there’, they ‘couldn’t stay away’.   The ‘herd’ bit came to mind, even if the lack of immunity only seems likely to become all too apparent in a week or two.

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.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A perception more than a reality’?

Perception or reality?

April 1st

So March slips seamlessly into April and the news gets its annual injection of  quirkiness.  One story that caught my attention was the one about a bronze statue of Dominic Cummings, designed by a Scandanavian sculptor called Olof Prial, that is to be erected outside the opticians in Barnard’s Castle where Cummings went to test his eyes.  Another was the story about a ten-person government commission – the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities  – that is said to have reported after the better part of a year that, where race is concerned, the UK ‘should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries’ because, according to its chair, Tony Sewell, while there is ‘anecdotal evidence of racism’ in UK, the commission could find no ‘evidence of actual institutional racism’.   People who spent any time at all opposing apartheid in South Africa will have been mightily relieved to discover that they have came to the right place. Provided, of course, that they haven’t noticed today’s date.

Nobody should be particularly surprised at the findings of the Commission’s 258 page report, which was apparently completed several months ago (and which, beyond the Foreword and Introduction, I have to confess to not having read in its entirety).  Boris Johnson signalled its outcome very clearly when he set it up.  Its job, he said, would be to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.’   As long as we ‘change the narrative’ and stop people feeling they are victimised and discriminated against, all will be well and victimisation and discrimination will disappear out of the window.  Johnson apparently made sure of the desired outcome of the review by getting Munira Mirza, the Director of the No 10 Policy Unit who is on record as saying that institutional racism is ‘a perception more than a reality’, to hand-pick the members of the Commission.   Perhaps the otherwise unaccountable delay in the report’s publication until April Fool’s Eve can be attributed to the same penchant for a jolly jape as Johnson’s racist references to, among other people, ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘water-melon smiles’.

We cannot, surely, be expected to believe that the arrival on the scene of an overtly racist prime minister will have miraculously purged our society of the institutional racism identified by so many previous reports.  Racism is now, Sewell’s Foreword suggests, just an unpleasant historical memory: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.’  This miraculous change must have happened in the four years since David Lammy produced his 2017 Independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.*

Lammy’s review revealed that young black people were nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, while the proportion of British and minority ethnic (BAME) youth prisoners rose from 25% to 41% in the ten years between 2006 and 2016.   Perhaps even more startling in view of what one knows about the penal system in the USA is the fact that while the 13% of the US population who are black accounted for a striking 35% of the prison population in that country, here the 3% of our population who are black accounted for 12% of the prison population, proportionally almost double the US’s notorious black imprisonment prison rate.   Lammy’s 2017 figures showed that for every 100 white men convicted of public order offences here there were 494 BAME convictions.   For every 100 white men convicted, the equivalent BAME conviction figures for criminal damage and arson, possession of weapons, drug offences, theft, violence against the person and sexual offences were 156, 144, 127, 121, 119 and 118 respectively.  In every instance the number of black men convicted was, proportionately, significantly higher than the number of white men.  

The Home Office’s own figures show that In 2018/2019 Black people were more than five times as likely to have force used against them by police as White people, and were subject to the use of Tasers at almost eight times the rate of White people.** Other figures show that there are twice as many BAME deaths in custody as a result of restraint, and twice as many involving the use of force, as for other groups.  So much for institutional racism being ‘a perception more than a reality’ – unless, of course, that miraculous transformation has indeed come about in a couple of years.  The outrage with which the Review report has been greeted by members of the BAME community would suggest that not to be the case.

As seems now to be the Downing Street custom, snippets of the report were allowed to leak out in advance.  One of the extracts that has occasioned the greatest consternation is one that manages to find a silver lining to the grotesque history of slavery: ‘There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain (sic).’  This cultural transformation is clearly seen as a positive benefit.   Crudely put, the route of the perceived ‘progress’ appears to boil down to: lift the African out of the heart of darkness in Africa, transport him across the Atlantic and subject him to the purifying fire of slavery, and, hey presto! you have your ‘re-modelled  African/Britain’, whatever that may be.   Didn’t any of the ten members of the commission pause even for a moment to call out the assumption of racial superiority underlying this bizarre attribution of a ‘silver lining’ to slavery?  In what respect, precisely, is the ‘re-modelled African’, now apparently fit to live in Britain, superior to his antecedents from, say, the empires of Songhai or Mali in West Africa?  

When Diane Abbott, the former shadow Home Secretary, heard that Munira Mirza was going to be involved in selecting the commissioners, she is reported as having said: ‘A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.’  Boris Johnson’s supposedly ‘independent’ Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities seems by all account to have done its very best to do the job he wanted it to do. It has tried to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’. But I suspect that Johnson is already wishing that the report really had been ‘dead on arrival.’  It is very much alive and kicking and has clearly already succeeded in gravely exacerbating a great many people’s sense of victimisation and discrimination. Even on April Fools Day it is difficult to believe that Boris Johnson, even Boris Johnson, could manage to shoot himself in the foot quite so crassly.


* https://www.theguardian.com/law/2017/sep/08/racial-bias-uk-criminal-justice-david-lammy

**  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-use-of-force-statistics-england-and-wales-april-2018-to-march-2019

From David Maughan Brown in York: The right priorities?

The University of Cape Town

March 29th

As the implications of the abrupt cut in foreign aid I wrote about in my last entry become more starkly apparent, it is worth looking at some of those implications for development programmes in Africa, in particular, in a bit more detail. It is worth repeating that Boris Johnson, who is in the habit of pontificating about what the British public thinks and wants, claims that the public would think that in cutting overseas aid the government has its ‘priorities right’.  In his terms, the public would rather see their taxpayers’ money being spent on nuclear warheads than on people he is on record as having referred to as ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.  ‘Foreign aid’ is an abstract concept that is unlikely to hold much attraction for a public continually exposed to a xenophobic narrative from right-wing media inclined to suggest that foreign aid going to Africa is always in danger of being siphoned off into the bank balances of corrupt officialdom. How richly ironic that is when one considers the extent to which our ‘straitened circumstances’ are at least partly due to the siphoning off of our taxpayers’ money into private bank balances via the corrupt handing out of billions of pounds worth of PPE and Test and Trace contracts to our own government’s chums. 

Yesterday’s The Observer, carried a brief report titled ‘”Brutal” cuts on overseas aid put African science projects in peril’ [1] from its Science Editor, Robin McKie, which provides a bit of granularity to the ‘Foreign Aid’ catch-all, and hints at some of the shock and devastation the arbitrary decision has occasioned.   A scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Anita Etale from Rwanda, who had spent two years putting together a team of researchers to help her develop a way of purifying contaminated water using maize and sugarcane stubble, had been promised the funding to develop a prototype but has now had the funding abruptly cancelled.  She told The Observer that her reaction ‘was one of bitter disappointment, grief and disbelief that Britain could do something this brutal.’   Johnson, and supposedly the British public, apparently think that nuclear warheads are a better investment than clean water for African children.

Similarly, a scientist at the University of Cape Town, Chris Trisos, the outcomes of whose work on how climate change will affect different species have been published in the highly prestigious journal Nature, has had his grant abruptly terminated for a new project to study how climate change will affect wild harvested food plants.  ‘In Africa’, Trisos is reported as saying, ‘millions of people rely on picking wild fruits and berries, but we know very little about how climate change might affect this essential nutrition source.’  When Trisos heard that his grant had been axed he said ‘I felt it like a physical blow when I was told.  My group’s future now looks very uncertain.’  So not only are nuclear warheads a better investment than clean water, they are also a better investment than food sources.  Someone needs to ask Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the other xenophobes in our government what they think is going to happen to the pressures of population migration if the supply of fresh food and uncontaminated water is allowed to dry up in Africa. 

But research on water purification and research on the extent to which wild plants can survive climate change are still somewhat abstract concepts, even when one hears about the devastation that the principal investigators feel when they hear that their research funding has suddenly been terminated without warning.  The principal investigators won’t be the only people affected.   Research teams will have been built up; countless hours will have been devoted to producing and submitting research proposals; administrators will have been employed; Human Resources managers will have the painfully difficult job of making colleagues redundant.   Researchers all too often have to rely on being able to bring in successive short-term research contracts – a sophisticated kind of hand-to-mouth existence without the job security afforded by tenured university positions.   The highs of getting research grants that will keep their research teams going are very high; by the same token the lows of having livelihoods put in jeopardy by the last-minute withdrawal of promised funding are very low.   The research projects for which the grants were funded have to be to be important and extremely well motivated: competition is strong and only the best projects have any chance of being funded.  The damage done to individuals, and the damage done to research development in developing countries is incalculable.   But why would our supremely insular Tory government worry about any of that?

The Observer article reports Richard Catlow, the Royal Society’s foreign secretary, as saying: ‘The cuts we were forced to make have been brutal.  We have seriously damaged our reputation as trusted partners in future collaborations.  The relationships that we have built up have been badly and, I fear, permanently weakened.’  No surprise there: if our proudly sovereign Brexity nation has demonstrated anything at all over the past year it is that we don’t give a damn about how badly and how permanently we trash our reputation as trusted partners and turn our sovereign backs on long-standing relationships.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/28/britains-brutal-cuts-to-overseas-aid-put-african-science-projects-in-peril

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Greed and capitalism’

March 25th

If anyone was still wondering what Brexit was all about, the last couple of weeks have provided some very clear pointers, not the least of which was Boris Johnson’s revealing off-the-cuff attribution of the success of the Covid-19 vaccine programme to ‘greed’ and ‘capitalism’ in a Zoom talk to Conservative backbenchers.  Astra-Zeneca is manufacturing the vaccine at cost, unlike the producers of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as Johnson knows full well, but greed and capitalism have good cause to float around near the frothy surface of Johnson’s mind.  What the mythical ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ of the Brexit rhetoric would appear to have been about was the freedom to break international agreements, as we saw so clearly with the Northern Ireland agreement, and ignore our obligations under international treaties.  Both of which offer plenty of scope for capitalist greed.

Last week saw the publication of The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, a pointer to what Johnson means by ‘Global Britain’, one of whose more noteworthy proposals is for a 40% increase from 180 to 260 in the UK’s stock of nuclear warheads.  We apparently need to do this in the face of an ‘evolving security environment’ and a ‘developing range of technological and doctrinal threats.’   Dropping a hydrogen bomb on them has apparently become the best way to see off doctrinal threats.  The review explains that “A minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, assigned to the defence of Nato, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our allies.” Our current stockpile would give us the capacity to wipe out 1,200 Hiroshimas, but that is apparently not enough. We are asked to believe that our deterrent won’t be ‘credible’ until we can wipe out more than 1,700 Hiroshimas.

Stewart McDonald’s response, in his capacity as the Scottish National Party’s defence spokesman, summed it up very well: “For the prime minister to stand up and champion the international rules-based system before announcing in the same breath that the UK plans to violate its commitments to the international treaty on non-proliferation beggars belief.”[1] David Cullen, the director of the Nuclear Information Service, added: “The UK has repeatedly pointed to its reducing warhead stockpile as evidence that it is fulfilling its legal duties under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. If they are tearing up decades of progress in reducing numbers, it will be a slap in the face to the 190 other members of the treaty, and will be regarded as a shocking breach of faith.”  But Brexit Britain isn’t going to get prissy about a little thing like a breach of faith, provided, of course, that it is its own breach of faith. 

Last week also saw confirmation that, as the head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs pithily put it, UK Ministers have decided to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen in an act that will see tens of thousands die and damage the UK’s global influence.  Mark Lowcock went on to describe what the UK was doing as ‘an act of medium and longer term self-harm, and all for saving what is actually – in the great scheme of things at the moment – a relatively small amount of money.’[2] The UK’s aid to Yemen, much of which is used to address issues resulting from the bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, with the help of weapons the UK government refuses to stop selling to Saudi Arabia, is being cut by 47% to £87m.  The Guardian tells us that ‘Boris Johnson has said the decision is due to the “current straitened circumstances” caused by the pandemic and has insisted the public would think the government had its “priorities right”.’  So the British public would, in Johnson’s view, not mind that, in Lowcock’s words again, ‘There is no getting away from the fact that it will have the effect of large scale loss of life and the piling on of misery in lots of places.’ The government is legally bound to spend 0.7% of the national budget on foreign aid, so its decision to cut that to 0.5% needs the approval of parliament, but the government knows that even its own backbenchers will recognise the immorality and inhumanity of what it is doing, so it is refusing to put it to parliament on the pretext that the reduction is only temporary.  The introduction of income tax in 1799 was only a temporary measure to help fund the cost of the Napoleonic wars; it is still with us.

The ‘lots of places’ where the misery will be piled on include Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Libya and Nigeria whose aid packages are due to be cut by 60%, 59%, 67%, 63% and 58% respectively.  The UK has up to now enjoyed an international reputation for its support for international development, but then it also had a reputation for standing by its international agreements.   The entirely justified damage this mean-minded cut in foreign aid will do to our international reputation and influence is incalculable.  It is also extraordinarily short-sighted.   At a time when Priti Patel is flailing around trying to dream up ever more fascistic ways of ignoring another set of our international obligations and stopping asylum seekers who are legally entitled to seek refuge on our shores from reaching us, Lawcock points to some of the implications of what would happen if other countries decided to follow the UK’s deplorable example on the aid front: ‘The result would be much more loss of life and misery, additional instability and fragility, and more substantial problems in these hotspots, which, we know, from bitter experience, have a tendency to spread and create their own bad dynamics, with wider international consequences, including to countries like the UK.’  The best way of stopping asylum seekers arriving in Kent in small boats is to make life in their own countries livable.

So the aid budget is being slashed because of our present ‘straightened circumstances’; and NHS staff in England are being offered a derisory 1% salary increase, 25% of what is being offered in Scotland, ‘because we can’t afford more’. Yet we can afford to enlarge our almost entirely useless stockpile of nuclear weapons (when it comes to deterrents, it that were what is at issue, I would have thought one Hiroshima was quite enough), and to waste tens of billions of pounds on a still deeply unimpressive Test and Trace programme and on wasteful PPE contracts and inefficient lateral-flow tests.   Johnson’s telltale invocation of capitalism and greed provides the likely answer.  Austerity has returned to most public sector salaries, which are frozen, and we can only afford 1% for the nurses, because there is nothing whatever to be had by way of immediate pay-back.   Weapons manufacture, on the other hand, tends to pay handsome dividends, as no doubt do PPE and the private sector companies into whose eager hands the Test and Trace contracts were thrust.  If we are greedy enough, and can identify where the dividends will come from, we can learn to stop worrying and learn to love almost anything.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/15/cap-on-trident-nuclear-warhead-stockpile-to-rise-by-more-than-40

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/07/uk-balancing-books-on-backs- of-yemens-starving-people-says-un-diplomat of-yemens-starving-people-says-un-

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Pause, reflect, remember’

126,172 tea lights?

March 23rd

Today is the anniversary of the imposition of the first lockdown in the UK and we are being told that it is an opportunity to pause, reflect and remember.   By the official count, which is dutifully included in the BBC news-bulletins every day, 126,172 people in the UK have now died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test.   Anyone trying to light 126,172 candles or tea lights in memory is likely to find the first one going out long before the last one has been lit.  The number of people whose death certificates indicate that they have died from Covid-related causes, is over 146,000.   Nobody has counted the number of people who might be still alive had they not wanted to avoid going anywhere near a potentially Covid-infected Accident and Emergency Department; had they been able to get to see – rather than merely talk to – a GP; or had their treatment for cancer or other diseases not had to be postponed or paused because the hospitals were full of Covid patients.

Researchers in the United States have come to the conclusion that every Covid-19 death leaves 8.9 grieving family members.[1]  Even making allowance for somewhat different family demographics, that statistic points towards the huge weight of grief the UK has to reflect on.   My own extended family, being white, middle-class, and not yet dependent on care-homes, has been lucky; all too many others have not.   So, rather than reflecting on the lives and deaths of family members and friends, as so many people will be doing today, reflection turns to causes and effects, to questions about what might have been.   Questions our government would very much rather leave for another day.

How different might it have been had we had Jacinda Ardern at the helm, with her common sense and compassion, instead of Boris Johnson who boasted about shaking Covid-19 patients’ hands and didn’t start taking the pandemic seriously until he had nearly died from it himself?  When it comes to quarantining, New Zealand has the signal advantage of being an island nation with complete control of its borders.  But so, of course, is Great Britain, which could have locked itself down nationally as well as domestically in a way the countries on the European mainland couldn’t.  If it were to be argued that New Zealand has the advantage of being miles from anywhere, whereas UK is inextricably linked to a continent not much more than twenty miles away, one might reflect that Covid-19 timed itself to arrive very shortly after the UK had supposedly cast off the shackles of its ties with the rest of Europe and become a sovereign island nation supposedly in full control of its own destiny.

Jacinda Ardern’s government’s success in keeping Covid-19 at bay has no doubt been helped by her own practicality, untainted with Johnson’s compulsive ‘boosterism’, and by the absence of a significant cohort of libertarians on her back-benches motivated by commercial rather than public health interests.   New Zealand also had the advantage of not going into the Covid-19 pandemic suffering from a decade of ideologically driven austerity and anti-immigrant sentiment which had depleted the capacity of the National Health Service, most obviously by allowing stocks of PPE to dwindle and decay, and by discouraging the recruitment of NHS staff, most notably of nurses.  That same ideology then dictated that the success-critical Test and Trace system be kept out of the hands of public health and farmed out, at vast cost, to private sector companies that still, a year later, haven’t got on top of what is needed.

It is impossible to know how many of those 146,000 lives might have been saved had we had a serious and even half-competent Prime Minister, and a cabinet whose  qualification for membership extended beyond thinking that Brexit was a good idea.  It is equally impossible to know how many lives have been blighted by those deaths; how badly the lives of many of those who survived Covid-19 have been, and will continue to be, blighted by long Covid; how many people’s mental health has been damaged by repeated lockdowns; and how badly the nation’s education has been affected by a year of on-and-off home-schooling.  One thing we have not been short of over the past year is statistics.  One of the more striking ones to appear today came from the Health Foundation, which has calculated, on the basis that each victim lost an average of 10 years of life when they died, that a total of 1.5 million years – yes, years – of potential life has been lost to the UK as a result of the pandemic: 825,000 years for men, compared to 670,000 years for women.  Dr Jennifer Dixon, the CEO of the Health Foundation, fleshed out the bald statistics: ‘Ten years is quite a lot of Christmases that you might have had with your relative or friend.’[2]

There will be a great deal to reflect on as we stand on our doorsteps this evening holding lighted candles, as we have been requested to do.   There won’t be any banging of pots and pans this time, no clapping and cheering for the front-line workers.  Just silent reflection. 


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2021/feb/22/covid-4-million-family-members-grieving-us-study-finds

[2]   https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/coronavirus-lockdown-deaths-health-nhs-b1820617.html