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: of activists, artists and Human Rights

July 2nd

The selection process for York University’s Centre for Applied Human Rights ‘arctivist’ grants, which I wrote about on April 25th and May 13th,  has finally come to an end.  The intention has been to bring activists and artists together to produce a combined response to the Human Rights situation in their countries in the context of Covid-19, with a maximum grant of £3000.   Having had to call a halt to the flood of bids a fortnight ago, as we were running out of funding for the grants, we held our eighth and final Zoom selection-meeting this morning at which we discussed the last 43 bids.   When I volunteered to join the panel I thought we would be doing well if we attracted 100 bids.  In the event, the committee reviewed a total of 234 bids, and that was after an initial sifting by the inundated staff at the Centre who had eliminated a further 250 or so of the weaker bids before they got to us.  While the critical mass of the bids initially came from Africa, by the end of the process the spread was far more evenly global, with a slight preponderance from Latin America.  So the six bids I short-listed before today’s meeting came from India, El Salvador, Estonia, the Philippines, Chile and Ecuador.  The various artistic products their authors were intending to produce included a radio play, a puppet theatre, a photographic exhibition, a city-centre installation, a series of podcasts, and the production of a series of politically loaded Covid-19 face-masks.

As I suggested in my earlier posts, going through these bids constituted a very welcome and illuminating metaphorical liberation from the narrow geographical constraints of York in lockdown The overwhelming impression left by the 234 bids as a whole was, improbably enough, in equal parts depressing and encouraging.  It was depressing in the way it demonstrated the extent to which brutal and corrupt governments and police forces around the world have used Covid-19 as an excuse to tighten the screws of their oppression of the people in whose cause they are supposed to be governing.  So, to take just a few examples from the bids,  from India: ‘the State has used the Covid-19 crisis as a cover to crack down on protesters and to enforce silence’; from the Philippines:  using Covid as the excuse ‘the government is tightening its grip on our freedoms… injustices, human rights violations and repression of free press, free speech and free expression are at an all-time high’; from Kenya: ‘From the onset of the Covid-19 regulations, the National Police Service has been used by the government to limit movement and suppress public dissent: arresting, extorting, harassing, forcefully disappearing and killing residents.’   Reading through the bids has, at the same time, been encouraging in that it has demonstrated enormous reserves of resilience and creativity among the artists and activists who have come together to produce the bids, and has, via the links to the artists’ music and art, demonstrated the extent of the global pool of talent that is available and willing to be put to use in the cause of justice and Human Rights.

At a rather different level, this process has left me feeling grateful that I live in a country that, on the whole, has rather more respect for human rights than most of the other countries from which those 234 bids have come.  We may live in a country with a metaphorically world-beating government when it comes to stupidity and duplicity where critical issues like Brexit are concerned, and a literally world-beating incompetence when it comes to Covid-19 deaths per head of population, but, to take just one indicator, nobody in the UK has been beaten to death by the police for contravening lockdown regulations.   However, we have no cause whatever for complacency on the Human Rights front, as has been so amply demonstrated in recent years by the Empire Windrush scandal. To take just one specific example of this country’s human rights abuses, David Davis, a renegade Tory ex-cabinet Minister, pointed out in parliament yesterday that the UK is the only country in Europe without any limit on the length of time immigrants can be held in detention in UK immigration centres. One detainee, he said, had been held in detention for a total of 1,002 days by the end of last year.   That is not a distinction to be proud of.   Nor is this a case of an absent-minded overlooking of a gap in our human rights legislation:  Davis’s proposed amendment to yesterday’s Immigration Bill, which would have seen a maximum period of 28 days introduced to restrict the indefinite detention of immigrants, was defeated by 80 votes.   That bodes very ill indeed for human rights in UK for the next four and a half years of unaccountable Tory government.