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: “Breaking Point”?

Brexit Poster

February 15th

Anyone capable of putting two and together who saw coverage of Donald Trump’s speech to his assembled followers on January 6th, immediately followed by the storming of the Capitol, cannot fail to have concluded that Trump incited the mob to do the storming and was ultimately responsible for the resultant loss of life.   Republican Senators who had either fled for their lives as the mob invaded, or barricaded themselves fearfully inside offices and committee rooms, were shown graphic footage of the crowd roaming the Capitol baying for blood in Trump’s name during the latter’s brief second impeachment trial.  Yet 43 out of 50 of those Senators managed to find reason to exonerate the man the entire outside world could see was directly responsible: he rallied his followers from around the country, repeated the lie that their votes had been stolen, and told them that their only recourse was to ‘fight’.  

When they assumed office, those 43 Senators all publicly swore (or affirmed): ‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same….’   But there is clearly a limit to the bearing of true faith and allegiance, and the defending of the Constitution, when it comes to the potential for alienating the deranged Donald Trump’s 74 million strong voter base.  Truth, integrity, honesty, probity were all readily ditched in the face of the threat Trump’s support base poses to the retention of their Senate seats.   So much for democracy, the world’s autocrats and dictators will happily, and no doubt vocally, conclude.

The ways in which our populist politicians in UK play to what they perceive to be their base of racists and xenophobes may have less of the TV reality-show razzmatazz about them, but they hold just as much potential to become dangerously out of hand in the not too distant future.   Farage and Johnson consciously played the race card in the lies they told to the electorate in the build up to the Referendum, most obviously in the ‘Breaking Point’ poster and the allegation that Turkey was about to join the EU.  Seemingly every day now the TV and print media, those that care about such things, are carrying stories about the extent of the vitriolic racist abuse being directed at our footballers and BAME politicians, most notably in the latter case the female ones.  And recent figures show a 300% increase in Antisemitic incidents reported in UK over the past decade.

Do the increasing levels of racism and xenophobia flourish because they are given license by our motley and depressingly mediocre bunch of cabinet ministers, or are the chameleon politicians merely following an existing trend in pandering to a Trumpian base?  Whichever is the case, the Prime Minister has a responsibility to do something about it  – but we can be 100% certain that he won’t.  In the absence of a written constitution, the only oaths formally sworn by public officials in the UK are oaths of allegiance to the Queen, which carry no moral or ethical implications beyond that loyalty.   

The symbolism of the ‘Home’ in the ‘Home Secretary’ designation and its oversight of policing and immigration gives that role a particular significance.   Its present, seemingly irremovable, incumbent, Priti Patel, has recently gone on record as baldly saying ‘I don’t support protest’ and ‘I didn’t agree with taking the knee per se, at all’.1 [i]So much for our sportsmen’s support for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement; so much, for that matter, for Dr Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement in the USA.  Patel comes across as a quintessential example of what black anti-apartheid activists in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s would have dismissively termed a ‘coconut’ – brown on the outside but white on the inside, where the ‘white’ represented the support for the vicious racism of apartheid that characterised so many white South Africans.  But nothing Patel can say or do is enough to dislodge her from the role for which she is so manifestly ill-equipped because, word has it, she is much more popular with the UK’s Trumpian Conservative base than Boris Johnson is.  We should be worried.

The Napier barracks in Kent can, once again, be taken as an example, this time of the way Patel and her Home Office are playing to what they perceive to be the prejudices of their Tory-supporting gallery – without the reality TV show razzmatazz, but to deeply damaging effect.   It has now emerged that a 2014 report concluded that the late nineteenth century barracks had never been intended for long term use, didn’t even in 2014 meet ‘acceptable standards for accommodation’ and were ‘derelict’.[ii] On the grounds that they ‘previously housed our brave soldiers’ (in Cabinet-speak all our soldiers are, by definition, ‘brave’, just as everyone who dies does so ‘sadly’) Priti Patel recently claimed that is ‘an insult to say they are not good enough for asylum seekers’.  It just so happens that nobody from the Home Office has actually visited the barracks since November last year.  Leaving aside the implication that we house our ‘brave soldiers’ in derelict accommodation, this obviously begs the question of where she perceives asylum seekers to be in the hierarchy of humanity: the lower the rung of the ladder they are perceived to be on, the more suitable for them the accommodation becomes.   Chris Philp, the Immigration Minister, gave the game away when he claimed the facility was ‘appropriate and suitable’ to house asylum seekers and commented in the House of Commons that  ‘They were good enough for our armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people who have arrived in this country seeking asylum.’[iii]

Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s shadow Home Secretary, responded to this by saying ‘This whole debacle shows how completely out-of-touch the Home Office is with reality.  To place asylum seekers in inhumane conditions and claim it was necessary to maintain public confidence in the asylum system is utterly appalling – and shows contempt for both asylum seekers and the general public’.   But, with the shadow of Donald Trump lurking in the background, one has to ask whether the Home Office really is out of touch with reality, and whether the ‘the general public’ would regard themselves as having been shown contempt.  Are Patel and Philp right in thinking that the general public of this country is happy to see desperate and vulnerable asylum seekers, fleeing from who knows what horrors, treated with deliberate cruelty, inhumanity and contempt?  If so, we need to be very worried indeed.


1


[i] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-batel-blm-protests-b1801663.html

[ii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-barracks-home-office-phe-b1802951.html

[iii] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/barracks-asylum-seekers-inspectors-home-office-b1801055.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Beyond reason

February 6th

Regrettably, the ‘Q’ in the placard being held aloft by ‘QAnon shaman’ Jacob Chansley in the above photograph, does not stand for the Quartermaster whose role in life was to equip James Bond with ever more sophisticated technological devices with which to outwit and, where necessary, try to kill Blofeld and the other evil villains of Ian Fleming’s fictional world.   Problematic as the delusion that he had been sent by Fleming’s Q might be in a United States absurdly awash with semi-automatic rifles and other assorted lethal hardware, the delusion for which Chansley is a figurehead is not just the isolated delusion of a single deranged individual, but a bizarre moral panic shared by a very significant number of people.  What its adherents believe is, for those less delusional, literally unbelievable: President Trump is waging a secret war against an elite of Satan-worshipping paedophiles led by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton who have a nasty habit of drinking children’s blood and will at some point, preferably very soon, have to be arrested and executed.   It is almost as unbelievable, but in this instance true, that nearly 75 million people voted for Donald Trump in November, an unknown but not insignificant number of whom are QAnon conspiracy theorists whom Trump has approvingly described as ‘people who love our country.’

Not an orderly queue

The absurdity of the QAnon conspiracy would be laughable were the belief not to have been held fervently enough to have motivated a significant portion of the rabble who stormed the Capitol on November 6th in what has been described as the most significant assault on democracy in the US in the past two hundred years.  QAnon came to mind yesterday evening as I watched the Channel 4 news coverage of the online abuse to which NHS staff in UK are being subjected by equally delusional Covid-19-deniers.  Nurses working themselves into the ground, in some instances all too literally, enduring 14 hour shifts in their efforts to keep Covid patients alive in ICUs, traumatised by the deaths of the very many who are beyond saving, are being accused of being lying prostitutes, and worse, whose comments on social media about what they are going through are held to be nothing more than crude attempts to cover up the fact that, in reality, the hospitals are empty.  Consultants who go public about the difficulties the hospitals are facing are being sent abusive death threats.   This is several stages beyond the level of insanity needed to believe that 5G phone masts are responsible for causing Covid-19, and potentially far more damaging in the long term than going out and trying to burn down a few 5G masts:  many of the staff in our underfunded and overstretched NHS have already been pushed to, and beyond, their limit, and being rewarded for their sacrifices by vicious abuse seems likely to result, as soon as the immediate crisis is over, in a exodus of the staff essential to the survival of the NHS. 

So what is going on?  What is it that not only enables such delusions to gather momentum and infect so many people, but also that allows so many of those people to feel free to direct virulent and ignorant abuse at professional people who know what they are talking about?  Recent OECD figures indicate that 91% of US citizens between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed high school education, and 47% have a post-secondary degree; the equivalent figures for the UK are 79% and 46%.[1]  QAnon believers in the US are not confined to the 9% who didn’t complete higher education, as exemplified by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a recently elected Republican Congresswoman graduate of the University of Georgia, who is an outspoken QAnon supporter who apparently has a habit of ‘liking’ social-media posts calling for violence against elected Democrats and claiming that both 9/11 and the multiple school shootings in US are staged events.   I cannot pretend to know what going on, but it is clear that ‘universal’ education, as currently practiced, is not succeeding in vaccinating enough of the population of either the USA or UK with sufficient rationality to protect against infection from wholly irrational and potentially extremely damaging conspiracy theories.

This being the case, what can be done to protect the vulnerable, and try to preempt the long-term damage that social media, feeding off deranged conspiracy theories, can do to individuals, and through them to precious and indispensable institutions like our NHS?  Freedom of speech is precious, but it isn’t an absolute right:  nobody has a right to stand up in a crowded theatre and shout ‘Fire!’ when there isn’t a fire.   One safeguard against that happening lies in the fact that shouting ‘Fire!’ in those circumstances could hardly help but draw very immediate attention to the person doing the shouting. Twitter-handles and Facebook accounts, by contrast, can be linked to made-up email accounts that enable trolls to retain their anonymity.   Is there any reason in a democratic society, where the rule of law is respected, for social media companies not to require verifiable identification from their users?  Those companies are currently investing substantial resources in taking down offensive posts, but usually only after they have already done their damage to the recipients.  Why should people who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression in ‘free’ societies not be expected to be held accountable for what they say?  

Trying to find ways of making sure trolls can be held accountable for their media posts is, however, a case of trying to lock the stable door long after the horse has bolted.  The prior question must be what could those of us who have spent their lives as educators have done, and what can our successors now do, to try to instill in our students some kind of rational defence against the siren attractions of ever more deranged conspiracy theories?


[1] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cac.asp

From David Maughan Brown in York: Dehumanising the victims

Napier barracks in Folkestone

January 28th

January 27th being Holocaust Memorial Day, we attended the annual civic commemoration of the day, this year via Zoom.  York has more cause that most UK cities to be highly sensitive to Holocaust Memorial Day, having been the site of anti-Semitic riots which culminated on 16th March 1190 in the murders or suicides of the entire one hundred and fifty or so Jewish community of York when they sought refuge in the wooden keep of what later became Clifford’s Tower, which was then burnt to the ground.

Yesterday’s very well put together commemoration was Zoomed from the University of York and introduced by the Vice Chancellor, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor.  The major part of the ceremony featured a very moving talk by Ariana Neumann who told the story behind her memoir When Time Stopped, which recounts  her gradual uncovering, as she grew up in Venezuela, of the past her German-speaking Jewish father would never ever talk about.  Ariana discovered that 25 of the 29 members of her father’s extended family had perished in the Nazi concentration camps and that, although he had managed to escape being sent to the camps himself, her father’s experience had left him so traumatised that he was never able to speak about it.   As is the case every year, if the appalling horror of the murder of the Jews, travellers and others in the concentration camps was the one very striking aspect of the import one took away from the commemoration, the other was the recognition that it took years of incremental dehumanization of the victims to enable their mass murder in the gas-chambers to take place.

All facile analogies or comparisons of other circumstances and events with the Holocaust itself are rightly regarded with suspicion as potentially anti-Semitic tropes, but it is clear that all genocides such as those in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Bosnia and in Darfur begin with the dehumanization of the victims that characterized Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II.   So it is greatly heartening to see that President Biden recognizes the importance of an immediate reversal of his predecessor’s insistence on demonising and dehumanising asylum-seekers and other immigrants.  Putting a stop to the building of Trump’s wall, and decreeing that government documents cease using the term ‘alien’ and speak of ‘non-citizens’ instead, may be largely symbolic, but reuniting immigrant children with their parents, and calling a 100-day halt to deportations, are much more than symbolic.  ‘Non-citizen’ is, of course, only halfway to being acceptable terminology, given the ‘non-White’ term beloved of apartheid functionaries and still used with such casual thoughtlessness in contemporary political and media discourse in the UK.

All the more reason then for dismay when, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, firstly, our Trumpian Home Office, in this instance fronted by Chris Philip, the immigration Minister, announces that unaccompanied child refugees will no longer be given sanctuary in the UK, in spite of the fact that the Home Office takes ‘responsibility for the welfare of children very seriously.’   So seriously that their welfare can happily be left to the people-traffickers.  Secondly, an article by May Bulman in The Independent[1]exposes the extent of the Covid19 outbreak at the Napier Barracks in Folkstone, one of the “camps” being used to house asylum seekers in the UK.  Bulman reports that by Tuesday over 100 positive cases had been recorded with at least one asylum seeker having resorted to rough sleeping in the camp to avoid having to sleep in a dormitory with up to 27 others, any of whom might be infected.   On 11th January Chris Philip responded to a parliamentary written question saying that the Home office was reviewing the recommendations of a ‘rapid review’ of asylum accommodation.  Ten days later the Home Office was still reviewing the recommendations.

Given the Windrush scandal, the ‘hostile environment’, and the callous indifference to the fate of asylum seekers exhibited by the Home Office and its current figurehead, Priti Patel, it is not stretching too much of a point to wonder whether confining asylum-seekers under such conditions in the first place, and the unconscionable delay in reviewing the findings of the ‘rapid review’ of their accommodation and doing something about it, is not deliberate, rather than just yet another manifestation of our government’s inveterate incompetence.   If we can’t generate waves in the English Channel to swamp the asylum-seekers’ dinghies, and we can’t send them all to St Helena, by way of deterrents, let’s just not worry too much about whether some of them die of Covid.   That might put an extra burden on the NHS, but it could stop them wanting to come here.  If that sounds unduly cynical I would, once again, cite in my defence the striking similarity of attitude and mode of operation of our Home Office to that of apartheid South Africa’s Department of the Interior.   

The relatively good news is that even the most cursory research will show that it isn’t only the Guardian and The Independent that have carried this story sympathetically. Even the Sun and the Daily Mail have done soboth of which have reported on a petition to shut down the site, along with a similar facility at a barracks in Wales, which had already by last Tuesday amassed more than 10,000 signatures.  So, much as the behaviour of the Home Office would suggest that it sees its role as being to take the lead in the incremental dehumanization of the victims of an inherently xenophobic government, it would seem that it still has some way to go if even the populist mouthpieces and opinion leaders of the tabloid press are still able to view the victims of the Home Office’s bullying sympathetically.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-camps-home-office-covid-b1792422.html

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 Boris and Donald Duo

Follow my Leader

January 9th

One of the more surprising things about Wednesday’s first storming of the Capitol in Washington since August 14th1814 was how surprised and shocked the majority of the world’s politicians and media commentators purported to be.   Trump had pre-emptively started to call the validity of the election, particularly of all postal votes, into question long before Election Day on November 3rd.  For the previous five years, Trump’s Twitter followers, now numbering over 88million, had been encouraged to live in an alternate reality, regaled with a narrative that cast him in the role of the Swamp-Draining Super-hero who was on their side in the battle against the swamp-dwellers.  With that narrative as the base, it was easy for him to build the grand delusion that the election had been fraudulently stolen from him and them; their votes had counted for nothing.  Rather than countering the myth-making, every single one of the 62 failed lawsuits contesting the outcome of the election merely served as further proof to his followers that there was a grand conspiracy at play and that their votes had been stolen.  The indistinguishably socialist/communist/Marxist swamp dwellers were in the process of illegitimately seizing power.

So when, after an inflammatory speech outside the White House, Trump said ‘After this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you.  We are going to be walk down to the Capitol…’ and continued with ‘… you’ll never take back our country with weakness.  You have to show strength, and you have to be strong’, his followers took him at his word and invaded and trashed the Capitol headquarters of the swamp-dwellers, at the cost of five lives.  Trump had omitted to mention that, while he would be with them in spirit, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be with them in person: he had retreated to the safety of the White House.   It is clear from interviews with their leaders in the Capitol that the motley gang of what Biden rightly called insurrectionists genuinely believed that in invading the Capitol they were reclaiming their democracy.  The next day, Trump, having earlier tweeted to the rioters in telling them to go home that ‘We love you. You’re very special’, clearly awoke belatedly to the realisation that his immediate interests lay in disowning any responsibility for inciting the insurrection.  So he promptly betrayed his followers by executing a U-turn worthy of Boris Johnson and declared: ‘Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem.…To those who broke the law, you will pay.’  

The comparison with Johnson, whom Trump once approvingly labeled ‘Britain Trump’, is not coincidental.  When asked, Johnson condemned the invasion of the Capitol and Trump’s role in inciting it: “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol.”  But, inadequate as ‘disgraceful’ was as a label for what went on, Johnson’s condemnation came across as the equivalent of Trump’s own volte-face from incitement to insurrection to ‘outrage’ at the insurrection he had incited.  Johnson was Trump’s man and vice versa.  As Foreign Secretary in 2017 Johnson is on record as saying that Trump was doing ‘fantastic stuff’ and ‘making America great again’; in 2018 Johnson bizarrely made the case for Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Needless to say Trump agreed with him: “I’m going to get a Nobel Prize for a lot of things — if they gave it out fairly, which they don’t.”  The admiration was mutual.  Prior to Johnson’s election as Prime Minister by the Conservative Party, Trump told The Sun: “I actually have studied it very hard. I know the different players. But I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent. I like him. I have always liked him.”  

The mutual admiration is not a case of opposites attracting.   Both men appear to be entirely lacking in either principles or scruples when it comes to getting what they want.   Both men have been caught out lying countless times, are inveterate womanisers and seem compelled to handicap their effectiveness in government by  surrounding themselves with sycophants of limited or no competence.  Both men belong to a minority social elite, have a history of racist utterances, purport to be men of the people, and, somewhat surprisingly, seem to manage to convince a significant proportion of ‘the people’ that are just that.  Both men foster grand delusions among their voters in order to achieve their political ambitions: Trump’s most recent one being the stealing of the election; Johnson’s being the delusion that Brexit can be of benefit to the UK.  Johnson’s distancing of himself from Trump at this juncture will, as always, be a matter of expediency and opportunism, not principle: he needs now to try to cosy-up to Biden.   The only question for me is whether in similar circumstances our wholly unprincipled Prime Minister would be prepared to incite an invasion of Parliament if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.  He was very happy to prorogue Parliament illegally.  He was entirely comfortable with introducing legislation in Parliament to renege on an international treaty he had himself signed less than a year previously.  I’ll leave it to you to consider the extent to which scruples about democracy would get in the way of Johnson’s ever inciting his followers to violence if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Optimist or pessimist?

Q: Why would anyone need a lorry park?
A: To replace the green fields of Kent

December 11th

To get the ball rolling (or, alternatively, decléncher la conversation) at our final U3A French conversation group for the year, our excellent group leader asked us each in turn to say whether, and why, we were feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the prospect of 2021.   I was tempted to offer, but didn’t think my French was up to an instantaneous translation, so refrained from offering, a French version of William E. Vaughan’s definition of the difference: ‘An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.’   

Given that it was a French conversation group, it could be taken as read that our collective vision would by definition extend to the world beyond the white cliffs of Dover, or, perhaps more pertinently, the newly created lorry parks of Kent – one of which has seen 27 acres of the famed green fields concreted over to provide ‘spill-over’ space for around 2000 heavy goods vehicles when the motorway inevitably becomes completely impassable.  Our government’s recently postured conversion to environmentalism would appear not to have seen any contradiction in the creation of 29 such concrete lorry parks around the country to cope with the fall-out from its failure to achieve what it had predicted would be the “easiest (trade) deal in human history”.

But I digress (it is very easy to get carried away when contemplating such matters.)   In spite of the Francophile character of the group, I found that I was the only member to declare himself or herself to be ‘very pessimistic’ in response to the question.  A couple of the other members came down on the side of pessimism, but most declared themselves, overall, to be optimistic in spite of their lack of enthusiasm for Brexit.  In each case this was on the strength of the remarkable success of the scientists in managing to produce an effective vaccine in less than a year.  One member’s partner had already been contacted and given a date for his first vaccination next week.   The vaccine will unquestionably make our lives much easier in the short to medium term, but, however damaging and distressing Covid-19 has been and still is, its longer-term effects are bound to be eclipsed by the damage a no-deal Brexit will wreak.

In what is still, though one suspects not for long, the fifth richest country in the world, the Social Market Foundation recently released a report stating that nearly two million UK children ‘went short of food this year.’  The report stated that some 16% of surveyed parents had said their children had to make do with smaller portions, had to skip meals, or had to go without eating at all for at least one day between March and September.  Any kind of Brexit can only make matters worse over the coming months and years, as every serious economist has been making abundantly clear for years now, and even our congenitally mendacious government has had to admit. The no-deal Brexit we are now hurtling towards, with the introduction of tariffs and the inevitable increase in food prices, will inevitably make matters very much worse.   It is shameful that so many families in UK already have to rely in food banks , and there is a limit to the extent to which food banks, and the likes of Marcus Rashford, can compensate for our government’s stupidities and inadequacies.

If Donald Trump’s reign of chaos and incompetence has been catastrophic for the United States in terms of lost lives and reputation, it seems reasonable to fear that the scar left on his country will be likely, in the medium to long term, to be far less disfiguring and long-lasting than the one that will be left on what is left of the UK by Boris Johnson and his fantasist colleagues.  More individual and family lives in the USA will be permanently scarred by the number of unnecessary deaths that country will have suffered, but most of the short-sighted and often self-defeating policies Trump has embraced can be undone by Biden over the next four years.  Brexit, by contrast, cannot be easily reversed.  The damage Johnson’s contemptibly immoral and dishonest behavior has done to our national standing and reputation is almost certain to be equally irreversible, as is the damage done to our relations with the countries of Europe whom Johnson persists in hypocritically referring to as “our friends”.  Both men have been equally divisive for their countries, and my only hesitation in anticipating that Johnson’s legacy will be far worse in the long term than Trump’s will be lies with the deranged number of guns carried by both sides of the divide in the USA.   

I’ll certainly be staying up on December 31st to make sure that the old year leaves, but I don’t think it is too unreasonable not to be wildly optimistic about the New Year as I see it in.

From David Maughan Brown in York: If you didn’t laugh you would cry

November 20th

With all too little of interest happening on the home front during lockdown, one is obliged to look elsewhere for subject matter to write about.  More traditional theatres being closed, it is a blessing, if a mixed one, that there is more than enough political theatre being enacted on both sides of the Atlantic to provide ample material for blogs, as well as keeping newspapers, journalists and, in particular, comedians and cartoonists in business.   The latter will be viewing the prospect of a very grey future once Donald Trump has eventually been dragged kicking and squealing out of the White House after wreaking whatever damage he can on the United States and the rest of the world in the interim.  Biden comes across as boringly sane and normal by comparison.   This side of the Atlantic, the comedians and cartoonists will be hoping that whoever is in charge will wait a bit longer before they come to the conclusion that putting the clown in charge of the circus was a seriously stupid thing to do and replace him with the far less colourful Rishi Sunak.  It will then be the turn of the playwrights to realise that much of what comes across as high farce in the present provides scope in the future for rewriting as tragedy.  If you didn’t laugh you would cry.

The latest act in the Johnson-Patel political psychodrama has seen considerable fall-out resulting from the long delayed release of a two-page summary of a report by Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minster’s former adviser on ministerial standards, into allegations that Priti Patel, our Honourable Home Secretary (how much irony can one honorific carry?), had been bullying members of the civil service in three separate departments unfortunate enough to have to report to her.  Allan found that the bullying had taken place, if ‘unintentionally’ (!), and that the ministerial code had been broken, which, in terms of every UK precedent, should have led either to the dismissal or the resignation of the Minister concerned.   Instead, Johnson did the exact equivalent of what he had done following Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle: demonstrated a total incapacity to learn from his mistakes; in this instance decided that the man responsible for doing the investigation had got it wrong, Patel hadn’t broken the Ministerial code or bullied anyone; and declared that he had full confidence in Patel and the matter was closed. Presumably worried that the media would be nasty to poor Priti in response, Johnson then ordered his MPs to “form a square around the Prittster (sic),” thereby demonstrating that he was, as so often, doubly delusional: first in imagining that he was on a par with the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, and, second, in imagining that the matter was closed.

Sir Alex Allan’s predictable and honourable response to having his painstakingly researched and carefully considered report ignored by Johnson was to resign his role as the independent adviser on the ministerial code.  Trying to advise Johnson on ethics was always going to be an uphill struggle, given that Johnson has made a career out of treating morality and ethics with total contempt.   University Vice Chancellors in general being given the same autocratic free-rein as Prime Ministers, I can understand how Sir Alex would feel, having on one occasion been undermined in a very similar way by one of the four Vice Chancellors to whom I was deputy.  Being unable, unlike Sir Alex, to embellish my CV with a knighthood, I couldn’t afford to resign.  

It is a truism that the distinguishing characteristic of bullies is that they will always pick on those who are weaker than themselves.   Asylum-seekers are among the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.   Nobody, apart apparently from those sycophantically prepared to form Johnson’s dutiful square around the “Prittster”, needs to read Sir Alex’s long-suppressed report to discover that Patel is a bully: there can be no question that the way the Home Office is treating asylum seekers at the behest of Patel constitutes a particularly cruel and brutal form of bullying.  Could there ever be a more loudly trumpeted invitation to potential bullies to get on with their bullying than the deliberate and overt creation and continuation of a “hostile environment” for any group of people?

Patel’s latest ploy has been to reinstate the regular compulsory reports by asylum seekers to Home Office offices that had been suspended in March on the basis that, however great the temptation, it wouldn’t look good if, after all they have been through to get here, asylum seekers were seen to be succumbing to Covid-19 as a result of having to make unnecessary journeys by public transport to report to the Home Office.  Apparently that doesn’t matter any longer, perhaps because Patel has decided that if they die of Covid that will simultaneously pre-empt the challenges of the “leftist” lawyers who have the unpatriotic cheek plead their cases, and also save her the cost of deporting them all.  It is all grist to the cartoonist’s mill, but none of it is remotely funny.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Oops! Sorry, it wasn’t a pizza box!

Our Premier, Steven Marshall looking for explanations

November 22. Well that was a mistake. Our severe lockdown lasted a mere three days. It was announced on Wednesday and by Friday there was a major backtrack.

This weekend the newspapers are full of analysis, recriminations and quite a lot of finger-pointing. What went wrong?

On Monday, our creative writing group had returned from the Flinders Ranges to hear about the ominous virus ooutbreak in our northern suburbs called the ‘Parafield’ cluster. It all seem to be under control until Wednesday when with little notice we were put into severe lockdown.

We were told that this was definitely a more virulent strain of the virus. The only hope for our state was to shutdown at short notice. There was a sense of panic in the community: hour long queues developed outside supermarkets. There was a flurry of emails cancelling appointments, weddings, funerals, travel plans; closing clubs, restaurants etc … think ALL activity outside your home. Borders were closed and incoming flights diverted.

Only one person from each household was to be allowed out once a day to shop. Dogs were not allowed to be exercised.However, people were quite innovative. I noticed walkers with backpacks on the way to shops, sometimes with a large dog in tow which they tied up outside. (For the first time I wore a mask to the supermarket. I found it mildly unpleasant.)

Then on Friday the news came out that the lockdown was unnecessary. There had been a mistake. What went wrong? I suppose we are all in a learning curve and the state government and medical authorities are as well.

Authorities believed that the virus was being transferred into the community on pizza boxes! It seems silly to say this now. But do you remember all that discussion months ago about how the virus could survive on different surfaces?

Contact tracers had interviewed an infected man who said that he had bought a pizza and from a pizza take-away business where another infected person was working. That’s how he had caught the infection. Our authorities jumped to the conclusion that this young man had been infected by merely handling a takeaway pizza. If this was true, then all the people who had collected pizzas during this period needed to be quarantined. Authorities went into overdrive contacting everyone who had been to that pizza parlour. Over 4,000 people were put into quarantine. (I wonder if they all bought pizzas – if so that was one very popular pizza restaurant!)

However, after checking they found out that this individual had lied. He was in fact working shifts at the pizza parlour and had been infected by a colleague working there. Apparently, this makes all the difference. No infected pizza boxes. No hundreds of customers potentially infected.

Our premier Steven Marshall reacted quickly. On Friday he announced the error and declared that on Saturday night the severe lockdown would end. People were allowed out to exercise and take their dogs out walking once more. We are still under restrictions but bearable. We ourselves are going out to lunch at friends shortly – 10 people are allowed to gather. We will be only 8. Outings next week are back on the calendar.

Now people are looking for someone to blame. Why did the authorities not double check when the concept of pizza box transmission seemed a little unlikely?

Why did the young teenager lie? Was he in fact paid cash over-the-counter? That’s avoiding tax. Was he a temporary resident? Perhaps a student struggling? Whatever the story, the poor youngster is in trouble. Apparently, he is being interviewed by the police but it appears there is no real sanction for lie telling. Even the current US president gets away with it daily – on a mighty scale. Why shouldn’t the teenager occasionally protect himself? And perhaps he was frightened and did not realise the enormity of his lie.

Either way, our state has had a shock, emotionally and financially, but we are on the better side of the event: no rampant community transmission.

And most critical, we have no Donald Trump look-alike spinning nonsense to undermine our democracy.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Lock him up!’

November 13th

I suspect that the only way the United States is going to be able to put a metaphorical strait-jacket on Donald Trump, appropriate as a literal one would be, is going to be to turn one of his crowd-rousing rally slogans back on him and “Lock him up!”.  His psychologist niece, Mary, author of Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, who is making a name (and no doubt a fistful of dollars) for herself with her insights into her grotesque uncle, is quoted by The Independent as saying that ‘He’s psychologically incapable of dealing with, processing or moving on from this kind of loss.  Interfering with a peaceful transfer of power is obviously bad, as is undermining the legitimacy of the incoming administration … but who knows what other kind of smash-and-grab activities he’s going to engage in?’[1]   

Speculation about possible kinds of smash-and-grab activity ranges from pardoning all his criminal cronies on his way out of the White House, to resigning on 19th January so that he himself can be pardoned by stand-in President Spence, to setting up an alternative Presidency ‘in exile’ at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida retreat, for the next four years.  A more benign speculation is that he will simply bide his time and stand for election again in 2024, but that is only marginally more benign as it would, at the very least, involve four more deranged years of racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tweets to his 70 million followers, aimed at further undermining Biden’s administration.  What is certain is that Trump is determined to flout the assumption (and tradition) that outgoing Presidents will behave like adults rather than tantrum-prone toddlers. 

Besides undermining the legitimacy of the democratic process in the USA, this turns the otherwise very sensible 70-day hand-over period between the date of the election and that of the inauguration into a very fraught two months that carries the serious possibility of armed conflict.  There are millions guns in private ownership in the US; we’ve been shown TV footage of heavily armed private militia gearing up for a fight; and Trump’s behaviour, cravenly supported by senior member of the Republican Party, seems at times calculated to encourage violent responses from men with guns.   Investigations are under way into a whole range of potentially criminal acts Trump has been accused of, so locking him up out of political harm’s way might be a good solution, although that would be certain to further enrage what is appropriately referred to as his ‘base’.   The USA does, however, have a written constitution whereby if Trump is still refusing to leave the White House by then, which seems entirely possible, he can be forcibly escorted out of it by the secret service on January 20th.

A number of commentators have suggested that Democracy in the US is in serious danger of being ’broken’.  Donald Trump may be doing his best to help it in that direction, but the USA does at least have that written constitution to fall back on.  Democracy in the UK is arguably on even more shaky ground in that we all too evidently can’t fall back on a written constitution to protect us in the longer term from dangerous mavericks.   The 70-day handover from one duly elected President to another in the US assumes a respect for tradition and a level of decency and political maturity on all sides, but where that is lacking, as in the present case, the law can ensure a resolution to any impasse.   Similarly, our representative democracy in the UK assumes a level of integrity and responsibility on the part of the Members of Parliament who are elected by the people to approve the laws that govern them, and it assumes that it will be the people’s elected representatives who will ultimately be responsible for overseeing the implementation of those laws.  But where this is manifestly not what is happening, where we find ourselves having to ask ‘who is it really that we are being governed by?’, we don’t have any constitutional remedy.   Reinforcing this question, our news headlines have been drawing attention to unedifying stories about Downing Street ‘special advisers’ fighting like ferrets in a sack, and we have been regaled with photographs of the dishevelled losers emerging from the sack into such light as there is on a rainy autumn day in London. Watching them limp off into the gathering dusk one is tempted to wonder whether that is what our democracy has come to. But that merits an entry all to itself.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/mary-trump-biden-election-emily-murphy-b1721263.html