From David Maughan Brown in York: Shutters

Connectedness

June 24th

So it is now five years to the glorious day since those fateful few hours when UK voted by 52% to 48% to shake off the stifling bonds of EU bureaucracy, regain our national sovereignty, freedom and independence, and leap forward into a future of limitless enterprise and boundless opportunity.   So how has that worked out then?

Our Prime Minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (really), the Honourable (truly) Member pf Parliament for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, thinks it has gone swimmingly: ‘This government got Brexit done and we’ve already reclaimed our money, laws, borders and waters.  The decision to leave the EU may now be part of our history, but our clear mission is to utilise the freedoms it brings to shape a better future for our people.’*

That better future on the sunlit uplands will, for those of us fortunate enough to have our present Tory government leading us onward into it, be based on all the bountiful free trade deals we can strike with the rest of the world.  Trade deals like one we will benefit from when we obtain membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.  It may be a bit of a stretch to see ourselves as part of the Pacific rim, but we are now Global Britain and our prospective trade deal with the CPTPP will increase our post-Brexit GDP by as much as 0.08% (although if Malaysia continues to refuse to come to the party that may only be 0.017%). A 0.8% GDP gain is less than one fortieth of the GDP loss we are scheduled to suffer from our exit from Europe, which happens to be a bit closer than the Pacific rim, but the fact that it has been freely entered into as an assertion of our sovereignty more than makes up for a mere 39% hit to GDP.

In terms of ‘reclaiming our money’ the Office for Budget Responsibility, not exactly a radical left-wing think-tank, estimated in March last year that about two-fifths of the damage Brexit would do to our economy had already been done.  Ben Chu, The Independent’s Economics editor concludes from this that, based on our 66m population, ‘the cost of Brexit so far on average is around £480 per person, with a further £720 to go.’  The title of Chu’s article sums it up very succinctly: ‘The real ‘Brexit dividend’? Minus £800m a week – and counting’**

In terms of ‘reclaiming our borders’, thousands and thousands of asylum-seekers and refugees are risking their lives by crossing the English Channel in overcrowded small boats in the absence of safe ways of reaching our shores.  The Guardian reported that 538 arrived last month and predicted that many more will be arriving through the rest of the summer.  ‘Reclaiming our waters’ hasn’t gone a lot better, with UK fishermen, many of whom voted ‘leave’ on the strength of the empty promise to reclaim our waters now finding themselves out of work, having been ‘betrayed’, as Lord Heseltime, the former Tory deputy prime minister bluntly puts it, along Johnson’s way to ‘getting Brexit done’ – or not, in fact, ‘getting Brexit done’, given the years of further negotiations that await.  Next in line to be sold down the river after our fishermen were our beef and mutton producing farmers whose livelihoods will be steadily eroded over the next fifteen years by the trade deal with Australia – for a possible best scenario 0.02% boost to our GDP.  

Johnson’s unprincipled and mendacious government will try in perpetuity to brush the stupidity and economic illiteracy of Brexit under the Covid-19 carpet. And, for those of us who don’t live in Northern Ireland and are retired and not at risk of losing our jobs and falling into destitution, five years on, the tangible day-to-day impact of Brexit remains relatively imperceptible – prices in the shops going up, goods ordered on line taking longer to arrive etc. ­ This was well summed-up by Thiemo Fetzer, a University of Warwick economist quoted by Ben Chu: ‘The problem is you don’t know how the UK would have unfolded if it hadn’t been for that vote.  Brexit is death by a thousand needles, it’s not an earthquake.  You don’t hear about each of the pricks of the needle.’

Five years on I don’t feel any less sad than I did on the morning after the outcome of the referendum was announced.  A sadness which informed a poem I wrote soon afterwards: 

Shutters

(June 24th 2016)

Someone came last night 
and shut our shutters,
unexpectedly.

We do not know precisely
who it was, or why,
or even whether they knew why.

In Italy and France and Spain
the shutters mediate the heat, 
allowing strips of light to filter through
open windows
bringing snatches of talk and song
in other tongues.

Azure and ochre, deep cerulean blue,
indefinite shades of rose and red,
their shutter-palette sings
Manet, Monet and Van Gogh.

Here, there is no heat to mediate:
our shutters used to signify
connectedness 
across a continent  

until someone came last night
and shut them
unexpectedly.

Can it really be 
they want to shutter out 
all talk and song in other tongues?

Our house is darker now.

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: “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: ‘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: 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: ‘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

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

February 23rd

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Having one’s fishcake and eating it.

The Conker King

December 31st

So, as 2020 shuffles embarrassedly off the stage, our ever-modest, ever-honest, ever-understated Prime Minister has finally, as far as he is concerned, ‘got Brexit done.’   As of 11pm tonight it will all be a thing of the past, the bright new dawn will break in the middle of the coldest night this winter, and we can all come together again and rejoice in our newly won freedom and sovereignty.  Not only has be ‘got Brexit done’ but, as he announced to the evident astonishment of BBC’s outstanding political commentator, Laura Kuenssberg, who was interviewing him yesterday, he has achieved what the skeptics regarded as being impossible by way of ‘cakeism’:  he has managed both to have his cake and eat it.  Given that we have actually had a sovereign throughout the four and a half long years of the Brexit saga, I’m hoping it isn’t too outrageously pro-EU of me to wonder whether he has taken the trouble to ask Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II what she thinks of his cake deal.  It isn’t difficult to guess what the answer would be, were the protocol to allow her to tell him. 

The ‘democratic’ process of parliamentary approval of the deal left something to be desired.  After those very long, very fraught, four and a half years, our elected representatives were allowed all of 24 hours to read the 1200/2000-page (estimates vary) agreement, and given five hours to debate it.  Leaving aside the minor detail that the cake deal only looks at trade in goods, which account for only 20% of our GDP, and completely ignores the other 80% that relates to Services, there remains endless potential for years of ongoing wrangling with EU negotiators on a wide range of important issues, such as: the mutual recognition of professional qualifications; data sharing; and, perhaps the most serious, security, as the deal cuts the UK out of the Schengen Information System database, which provides real time information on serious crime and terrorism and was said by a senior police officer to have been checked 603 million times by the police last year, and the EU’s policing agency, Europol.  Our Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, assertion that the deal will make UK ‘safer and more secure’ is manifestly untrue.

The great ambition of Brexit was for the UK to ‘take back control’ of its destiny which, bearing the island heritage of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Horatio Nelson et al. in mind, meant the need to demonstrate symbolically that Britannia Rules the Waves.  The grand announcement of the agreement of a deal was delayed hour by hour, pizza by pizza, through the night into Christmas Eve as the 0.12% of UK GDP represented by the off-shore fishing industry was haggled over to this end.  Given that HMS Victory, the Golden Hind and Raleigh’s ship the Ark Ralegh (which he gave to Elizabeth 1st who ungratefully renamed it the Ark Royal) are, regrettably, no longer in service, the waves these days apparently have to be ruled by fishing trawlers.  One might have imagined that the triumphant gesture with which Johnson greeted the news of the agreement (see above) – the eleven-year old who has just been crowned Conker King of the second form – signified that he had achieved his goal of having his fishcake and eating it.  But far from it.  The Independent’s analysis tells us that:  ‘EU boats will continue fishing in UK waters but their share of fish will [only] fall 15 per cent in the first year and 2.5 per cent in each of the four following years…. By 2026, UK boats will be allowed to catch approximately £140m more fish.’   After that there will be annual negotiations, and no doubt more late night pizzas (despite Brexit being ‘done’ five years before) to decide how much of the catch each side gets.  The UK could, of course, decide at that point not to allow anyone else’s fishing boats into its waters, but then not only would the EU be entitled to place tariffs on UK exports (including all the fish the UK can’t eat as it is), but someone has also uncovered a paragraph buried among the 1200/2000 pages entitling the EU to cut its supplies of petrol and gas to UK in such an eventuality. SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford has spotted, buried in the detail, that the deal Johnson is busy celebrating means that Scottish boats will actually have less access to cod and haddock than they do now.   Apart from being yet more grist to the Scottish Independence mill, this means that whatever fishcake Johnson thinks he can both have and eat is unlikely to be made from either of our two most popular fish.

I hope it won’t sound too hollow if I take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year as Covid2020diary turns 21, in fact if not in name.

From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars.

December 23rd

Manston Airport in Kent: 22/12/20

‘It’s all in the stars’ – or, more accurately, to be a bit of a killjoy, in the planets.  A Grand Conjunction only happens once every 800 years so it must, of course, be redolent of cosmic significance, and Jupiter and Saturn chose to align for our benefit at the winter solstice in 2020.  What could be more significant than that?  Given what 2020 has dished out to everyone, astrological significance should come as no surprise, but when it comes to comprehensive interpretation one has to rely on the wisdom of astrologers.  What better authority to call on to tell us what it all means than the Daily Telegraph’s tame astrologer Carolyne (sic) Faulkner who informs the world that this conjunction is occurring in Aquarius, which is an air sign, and that all other conjunctions for the next 200 years will be occurring in air signs.  She goes on to say that whereas “Earth energy triggers people to become more grounded, practical, sensible; to have respect for politicians and institutions. Air energy triggers cerebral, less tangible happenings.”

I’m glad she told us that.  If we had been told that it was Earth energy that was holding sway over us we would have had to conclude that the energy, like that of the pink mechanical rabbit in the battery advertisement, was grinding to an arthritic halt.  There is very little that is grounded, practical or sensible in the way we are being governed, and respect for politicians, and many institutions – the NHS being a notable exception – dribbled away long ago.   On the other hand, if air energy ‘triggers cerebral less tangible happenings’ that explains why our entire economic and societal future is currently caught up in an ideological wind-storm with no tangible benefits whatever in prospect.  To take the latest example of the utterly delusional cerebral forces determining our future (giving the benefit of any doubt that anything resembling a brain is involved), one only has to cite our representative Home Secretary, the inimitable Priti Patel: ‘The government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures.’  She then went on to correct Boris Johnson’s absurd claim that only 170 HGV’s were queuing in Kent, by claiming the number was 1500, in itself a serious underestimate (today there are said to be 5000- 8000), and then pointing out that the number was constantly fluctuating as “lorries are not static”.  Tell that to the drivers of the seemingly motionless lorries ‘stacked’ on Manston airfield in the photograph above.   She might also like to tell them where they are supposed to find food, water and loos – never mind somewhere to sleep – for the three or four non-‘static’ days they are having to spend in Kent before being forced to be away from their children for Christmas.

The Grand Conjunction, symbolically hidden from the view of most of the UK by impenetrable clouds, should probably be taken as nothing more esoteric than a stark cosmic warning – a preview projected in the stars – of the much less grand, but probably equally far reaching, conjunction of Covid19 and Brexit.  The French government, understandably panicked by our callow Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s, ill-judged statement that the new variant of the virus was ‘out of control’, promptly closed their borders to all people coming from UK, and every single state in the EU, apart from Greece and Cyprus which are retaining strict quarantine regulations, immediately followed suit.  Many other countries around the world have now done the same.  So our proudly independent and sovereign little island nation is completely cut off; nobody wants us anywhere near.  Our rabidly jingoistic tabloid press promptly and predictably erupted with age-old Francophobic fury, accusing President Macron of playing politics.  Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian politician, reflecting on the current chaos and probably on the empty supermarket shelves to come, commented that the British people “will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means….”  Matt Hancock, gaze fixed firmly on the national navel, and unable to see beyond the white cliffs of Dover, had been intending his comment to persuade those living on his little island to abide by their Tier restrictions, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world was bound to be listening.  Those trying to argue that lorry drivers don’t pose any risk of transmitting the virus because they spend their time ‘alone in their cabs’, and should have been allowed to cross back to France, have the same problem with national navel-gazing: they would appear not to have heard that HIV/AIDS research in South Africa has demonstrated very clearly that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa can be traced along the routes taken by long-distance truck drivers ‘alone in their cabs’.

The timing of the Grand Conjunction so close to Christmas 2020 has reawakened discussion of the theory that the star of Bethlehem in the story of the nativity could have originated with the conjunction of Jupiter with Venus (rather than Saturn) in 2BC. For those inclined to read messages into astronomical events, there might be a message there for our nationalistic ‘Christian’ xenophobes as they ponder the Nativity story in their unsung Christmas church services.   Perhaps the writing in the stars might be inviting them to compare the fates of two families, and two very young children in particular.   On the one hand, 15-month-old baby Artin who drowned in the English Channel in 2020, along with his parents, Rasoul and Shiva, his nine-year-old sister Anita, and his six-year-old brother Armin, after the family had fled from the violence in the near East, travelling from Iran to Turkey, Italy and France before having to try to cross the channel in a small boat because Priti Patel had closed off all legal and safe ways to get here under the pretext of Covid.  On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents had also had to flee violence in the near East, but who found refuge in a non-Christian country that was happy to provide refuge to asylum seekers long before there were international agreements requiring countries to do so.

It’s all in the stars – if one only knew how to interpret them.