From David Maughan Brown in York: New Dawns

21st January

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The words of Amanda Gorman’s poem, read from the platform at Joe Biden’s inauguration by ‘a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother’ as she described herself, chimed perfectly with the President’s own words in his inauguration address: ‘And together we will write an American story of hope, not fear.  Of unity not division, of light not darkness.  A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness.’  The oldest man ever to be inaugurated as President and the youngest Poet Laureate ever to give voice to a poem at a President’s inauguration, who happens to be a 22-year old black woman, successfully combined to embody the watching world’s hope for a better America.   At one end of the spectrum, Biden gives the impression of epitomising the decency and goodwill that will be one of the main qualities needed if unity is to overcome division; at the other end, Amanda Gorman embodied the intelligence, energy and bravery that will be essential if the new dawn is to bloom – the bravery to be rather than just to see.  The events of the day brought hope.

There are new dawns and new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.  For all Boris Johnson’s empty words in welcoming Biden’s inauguration as ‘a fantastic thing … for a country that has been through a bumpy period’ one can only hope that, as he watched the ceremony from Downing Street, he began to realize just how exposed he is now that his fellow populist has exited Stage Left (like the bear in Shakespeare’s  aptly titled The Winter’s Tale – except, of course, that Trump could only ever exit Stage Right.)  Johnson’s compulsive overuse of the term ’fantastic’ – as when he said his signing of the Brexit agreement was a ‘fantastic’ moment – is telling.  Much as he would have liked his soul-mate Donald Trump to have won the election, the bad news for Johnson is that Biden’s election is no fantasy, and the contrast between the two is already starting to become glaringly obvious, even as the stench of rotting fish and other meat being discarded from lorries trapped at our borders by Johnson’s ‘tariff-free trade deal’ wafts its way towards Downing Street.

Leaving personality traits, such as Biden’s decency, modesty and empathy, aside, the most obvious contrast where the processes of government are concerned is perhaps already to be seen in Biden’s choice of cabinet.  Whereas Biden has brought together a very richly diverse and vastly experienced group of people to help him lead the country through the aftermath of the divisive Trump era, Johnson’s sole job specification was that candidates had to be short-sighted enough to join him in his fantasy that Brexit would be a good thing for the UK, or sycophantic enough to pretend to.  It won’t take more than a week or two for it to become obvious which is the better set of selection criteria.  It is, of course, possible that one of Biden’s undisclosed essential criteria was that his picks needed to have an intelligent view of Brexit.  So, for example, in his informative run-down of Biden’s cabinet in The Independent* James Crump reports that Antony Blinken, Biden’s new Secretary of State, ‘called Brexit a “total mess” and compared the decision to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen.’

Unsurprisingly in this context, Biden’s approaches to Islam and immigration are two of the most striking areas of difference between the two new versions of dawn.  In his first few hours in office President Biden signed 16 Executive orders rescinding central pillars of Trump’s policy, including overturning Trump’s “Muslim Ban” on travel from majority-Muslim countries and putting a stop to Trump’s family separation policy.   Biden will call a halt to the building of Trump’s border wall, and his administration will stop referring to immigrants as ‘aliens’, and will extend protections against deportation for thousands of Liberians living in the US.  Another of the executive orders signed by Biden calls on Congress to legislate a pathway to citizenship for Americans who were brought into the USA as undocumented children – the ‘Dreamers’ for whom Obama sought to provide some legal protection against deportation via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme.  All very far cry indeed from the deliberate creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, which Priti Patel eschews in word even as she embraces it in deed.  Boris Johnson and Priti Patel don’t need a wall, they have the English Channel which Patel has used very effectively to enforce her very own family separation policy via closing off legal routes for unaccompanied refugee children to join extended families in UK. 

Those are particulars.  If one is looking for examples of the contrast between the decency, open-mindedness and generosity of spirit that informed Biden’s inaugural address and the juvenile pettiness and meanness of spirit that characterizes Johnson’s government, one need look no further than its refusal to grant full diplomatic status the EU ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, and his 25-strong mission.   The Foreign Office’s rationale for this juvenile playground vindictiveness is that it wouldn’t be appropriate to treat an international body as if it were a nation state.  The fact that 142 other countries around the world grant EU Ambassadors the same status as those of sovereign nations is, of course, beside the point in a context where one of the few points of Brexit was to assert British exceptionalism.  In this respect, when it comes to Trumpism, ‘Britain Trump’ is, via his Raab Foreign Secretary side-kick, even succeeding in outdoing Trump who briefly downgraded the EU’s diplomatic status in 2019 before restoring it on the grounds, more articulately expressed by his EU Ambassador, Gordon Sondland, than he ever could himself, that the EU is “a uniquely important organisation, and one of America’s most valuable partners in ensuring global security and prosperity”.**  If even Donald Trump could understand that, Biden’s ascent to the Presidency seems unlikely to come to Johnson’s rescue where salvaging any benefit from the “total mess” of Brexit is concerned. 

There are new dawns and there are new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.

*  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/joe-biden-cabinet-picks-who-list-b1789950.html

** https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/21/uk-insists-it-will-not-grant-eu-ambassador-full-diplomatic-status


			

From David Maughan Brown in York: The circus has come to Town

July 9th

As those of us who have chosen to stay in what is now largely self-imposed lockdown live our generally uneventful lives, thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t in the impotent position of having had to rely on Matt Hancock to throw a protective ring around us, we watch the world stirring back to life with an underlying sense of apprehension.  When will the seemingly inevitable second wave or ‘spike’ strike?  What are the realistic chances of a vaccine being developed in the relatively near future?  When might we finally get to hug our grandchildren and visit family in far-flung places?  When, long after the 50%-off offer has lapsed, might we feel it is safe enough to try to get a booking at our favourite restaurant? How will all this affect the long-term futures of our children and grandchildren? Will anybody, apart perhaps from Jacinda Ardern, ever get a handle on how to deal, once and for all, with Covid-19?

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a very good impression in a lengthy BBC Today programme interview this morning of having a reasonably good handle on how to coax the economy back towards something resembling normality.   He may not have all the answers – particularly with regard to the self-employed and the UK’s October furlough ‘cliff-edge’ – but, given that he has to contend with the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches, it is refreshing to hear him coming across as being just as ‘unencumbered by dogma’ as he claims to be.   Sunak was eminently reasonable and good-humoured in the face of Martha Kearney’s constant interruptions and her dogged insistence on asking the questions she obviously had  on a piece of paper in front of her, regardless of whether he had already pre-empted and answered them.   In fact I got much more irritated by her insistence on interrupting and talking over him than he appeared to.  As an economist, Sunak comes across as far too intelligent, and far too unencumbered by dogma, to believe that Brexit can possibly be a good thing, so I am left wondering what his long term strategy might be.

In the meantime the circus goes on around him.   Boris Johnson, temporarily forgetting that he is the unchallenged world-beating champion of the U-turn, is refusing to back down on his craven attempt to blame the care home managers for the 20,000 care home deaths that resulted from his government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic.   Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary, allows an unexpected glimmer of hope that our government might actually have a faint awareness of human rights, despite their perpetual denial by the Home Office, by placing sanctions on a number of prominent Russians and Saudis implicated in human rights abuses.  But that hope is promptly snuffed out by Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, who rushes to resume sales of arms to the self-same Saudis so that they can get on with bombing civilians in Yemen.  Matt Hancock has stopped boasting about the number of Covid tests being carried out – possibly because he knew that someone somewhere would eventually discover that 30% of the tests that were hurriedly posted out to make up the numbers were never returned.   But that doesn’t stop him from boasting about how successful his Trace and Test programme has been in tracking down all the customers from the three pubs that had to close the day after the great ‘Independence’ opening because one customer from each had tested positive for Covid-19.  That was remarkably stupid, even for Hancock, because by then everyone knew that the Test and Trace programme had had absolutely nothing to do with contacting all the customers: the pubs’ landlords or landladies (mainly the latter) had personally telephoned up to 90 customers each.

The circus is scheduled to be performing every day for the next four and a half years.  The reviews can only continue to be very bad indeed.  The one change of personnel that might make the outcome slightly better would be the promotion of Rishi Sunak, who currently manages the ticket-office, to the role of ring-master.  That would allow Boris Johnson to be relegated to a role he is far better suited to, that of understudy for the clown: the one they call on when they need a clown who isn’t even remotely funny. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive

Cecil Rhodes from Punch 1892 (wikicommons)The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes, after he announced plans for a telegraph line and railroad from Cape Town to Cairo.

June 18th Scientists the world over are using their analytic skills to discover more about Covid-19 every day, but they appear not, as yet, to have come to any conclusions as to why the virus, or perhaps the resulting lockdown measures, appear to be having a seriously detrimental effect on the intelligence of prominent ‘leaders’ in our society, even when they don’t show other symptoms.  The last couple of days have evidenced so highly-charged a competition to see who can make the most offensively tone-deaf statements about the ongoing manifestations of the Black Lives Matter protests that one could be forgiven for thinking that one had inadvertently dropped in on the preliminary rounds of a national Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive competition.   Boris Johnson’s scintillating record in the field would obviously have guaranteed him a pass directly into the final.

On the off chance that anyone can begin to compete with Boris when the competition gets to that final, my bets are currently on Dominic Raab to come third, and the light horse in the field, Louise Richardson, the current – for how long one wonders – Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, to come second.

Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary until such time as the Tory party changes the designation because ‘Foreign’ is such a dirty word, has just been gifted the Department for International Development by Boris because ‘International’ and ‘Development’ are also dirty words, and our English Nationalist Cabinet apparently thinks charity should begin at home.  Other people might think it is ‘Dominic’ that is the dirty word.   Anyone but Boris might even think that a degree of racial sensitivity could be a good idea in a Foreign Secretary, even when his role must be assumed now to include doing away with foreign aid.  But Raab’s latest entry in the competition involves suggesting that the Black Lives Matter symbolism of  ‘taking the knee’ derives from ‘Game of Thrones’ and asserting that he would only do it for the Queen (having once done it for his wife).   That level of crassness does, of course, equip him very well to lead a Little Englander drive to limit International Development. A drive that is so unutterably stupid in its long term implications as to rival the Tories’ parallel obsession with Brexit.   The only way to stem the tide of people flowing towards Europe from Asia and Africa, whether fleeing wars and oppression or driven by climate change, is somehow to make staying in their own countries a better option than trying to get to Europe.   Cutting the funding for foreign aid and international development is a very peculiar thing to do for people in Europe who dislike foreigners and are paranoid about immigration. 

Professor Louise Richardson’s entry for the competition this week was by way of invoking the name of Nelson Mandela as an ally in her argument that the Rhodes statue high above the entrance to Oriel College should not ‘Fall’.  This was in spite of the fact that, after four years of resistance, the governing body of the College has finally voted to remove it.  The Independent carried a report today to the effect that Professor Richards was arguing that Rhodes was a man of ‘great nuance’ and that Mandela had recognised “that we have to acknowledge our past but focus on the future,” and said that hiding history was not the “route to enlightenment”.   Museums, as Professor Richardson obviously knows full well, are buildings which exist for the purpose of ‘storing and exhibiting objects of scientific, cultural and historical interest’, as the OED puts it.   Far from ‘hiding history’, putting that statue, like the infamous Cape Town one, in a museum, would make it possible to contextualise it and confront and understand that history, in all its ugliness.   You can’t do that when the statue is stuck in a niche high above the street, usually noticed only by those who find it profoundly offensive.

Professor Richardson’s enlisting of Mandela in her defence of the Rhodes statue is deeply offensive not just to black people but to all those of us, particularly those of us who were lucky enough to know him, who regarded Mandela with boundless admiration and affection.   He was for many of us, pace the boarded-up statue of Churchill, without question the greatest moral and political leader of the twentieth century.   In response to the ‘hiding history’ brigade, I’ve heard it argued that Germany does not need to have statues of Hitler all over the place in order to confront its 20th century history.  That is obviously true, but the analogy is worth dwelling on.  Rhodes was not responsible for anything equivalent to the holocaust, but it is a fact that he was greatly admired by Hitler who is on record, according to Rhodes’ biographer Antony Thomas, as saying that Rhodes was the only person who understood the historical conditions for maintaining British supremacy, but had been ignored by his own people.  According to the same source, Hitler’s admiration for Rhodes is further evidenced in the former’s statement of his belief that ‘the German people are called by the divine destiny to be the leaders of the world for the glory of the German being as well as for the human race.’  This was, word for word, but for two key words, a direct quotation from the ‘nuanced’ Rhodes:  Hitler had replaced Rhodes’ ‘English ‘ with ‘German.’   Professor Richardson should have known better.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Bears of very little brain

April 16th

Today is the big day when the Government in the person of the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, who is deputising for the Prime Minister while definitely not being a Deputy Prime Minister, gets to tell us that the lockdown is going to be extended, not lifted.   Everyone knows that.  It has been hinted at by everyone with any authority in such matters for several days.  But we still need to be subjected to the ritual of a formal announcement.  Because the journalists who get to ask questions at the daily press conference worked out some days ago what the announcement will be, they have been pressing Raab to let us know what will happen after this extension, and they will continue to do so.  What is the exit-strategy from the lockdown?

This is going to continue to be really irritating for the government.  People who keep asking about the strategy are so annoying, in fact, that no less a person than the Minister for Health, Nadine Dorries, has issued an instruction to journalists to stop asking that question. It may need to be pointed out for the uninitiated that although she is Minister for Health, who would be top-dog in many countries, Dorries is only the Under-Secretary of State (for Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Patient Safety), to distinguish the office from that of the implicitly Upper-Secretary for State for Health and Social Care, Matthew Hancock.  The implicit ‘Upper’ bit in the latter’s title is silent, left unspoken, lest the title should sound too pompous.   Prior to being elevated to her present status, probably even now, Dorries is best known for having been suspended from the Conservative Party for taking part in the TV show ‘I’m a celebrity …Get me out of here!’ without getting the permission of her Chief-Whip.  This was clearly an ideal qualification for the ‘Mental Health’ part for the portfolio, and Dorries very quickly demonstrated her ‘Patient Safety’ credentials by becoming the first MP to contract Covid-19.

Why is the exit-strategy question so irritating?  Dominic Raab has painstakingly explained to the masses that the Government is absolutely not going to engage in any discussion of an exit-strategy because that would serve as a ‘distraction’ from staying at home during the lockdown.  We, the great British public, are bears of so little brain and such intemperate urges that even the merest mention of the honey-pot of going shopping for non-essential items is likely to compel us to burst out of our social-isolation to indulge in an orgy of non-socially-distanced socializing.  The cynics among us are inclined to believe that the government is finding questions about an exit-strategy so irritating because, quite simply, there isn’t one.  It is rumoured that the cabinet is split down the middle between those who are, understandably, desperate to get the economy going again and those who are, equally understandably, fearful that lifting the lockdown will result in a second wave of Covid-infected patients hitting the hospitals.   A split cabinet is not conducive to the formulation of any kind of strategy.  In the meantime our government apparently hopes that it can buy itself some more time by telling us not to bother our little heads by trying to think about more than one thing at a time.