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: The right priorities?

The University of Cape Town

March 29th

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

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

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

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

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


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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of horses and men

Cyprina

March 3rd

I surprised myself with the visceral repugnance with which I responded to the news that the prominent Irish trainer, Gordon Elliott, had posed for a photograph sitting with an imbecilic grin astride the very dead body of one of the racehorses he had been hired to train.   The photograph has been severely and sensitively cropped to cut the body of the horse out of the version published by the mainstream media, but the narrative is shocking enough without need for the full visuals.

I have always felt a particular affinity with horses.  The closest I get to an acceptance of the esoteric insights of astrology is via its tendency to suggest that an affinity with horses is often a characteristic of people born under Sagittarius.  Centaurs don’t have much option when it comes to that affinity.  The highlight of my years in, or in this case out of, junior school were the two months we spent every three years at an uncle’s trading station on the Berea Plateau, in what was then Basutoland, when my father was required as a colonial servant to remove us from boarding school and take us out of what was then Tanganyika to go on ‘long leave’.   Those idyllic months were mainly spent with and on Basuto ponies.   

At the other end of the career spectrum, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal in the very turbulent and stressful ‘transformation’ years after the unbanning of the ANC in the 1990s, being able to spend two hours on Sunday mornings riding the Cyprina of the illustration above was the best possible therapy I could have wished for.   My friend Julia Braine lives with her partner, Ros, half a dozen dogs, innumerable cats, a flock of chickens and half a dozen horses on a smallholding in Winterskloof on the hills above Pietermarizburg.  Cyprina was a superb Lipizzaner mare whose liveliness belied her 25 years.  Her owner had, wholly unaccountably, more or less abandoned her to be stabled by Julia, she needed regular exercise and I could tell myself that I was performing a public service by assisting in that regard.  The smallholding gave immediate access to hundreds of hectares of pine and blue-gum plantations above Cedara where we could roam at will.  Cyprina was always uncannily sensitive and responsive to my mood and, while Julia who was then Head of the University Student Counselling Centre is a brilliant clinical psychologist, it was Cyprina who was the therapist-in-chief.  The painting is a treasured parting present from Julia and Ros when we left South Africa. 

The Gordon Elliott photograph and story have been greeted with public outrage and fury, mainly, it seems, by those connected in one way or another with the racing industry who are clearly, and with considerable justification, concerned that it brings the industry into disrepute.  The situation wasn’t helped by another report and photograph emerging immediately afterwards about and of an equally insensitive jockey having done exactly the same thing. Gordon Elliott has been banned pending a formal inquiry; I expect the same to happen to the jockey.

With hindsight, I now find myself wondering quite why I responded to the story with such visceral distress.   It was no more rational than is the idea that my affinity with horses has to do my having been born under the sign of Sagittarius.   The horse was dead; it didn’t mind somebody sitting on it.   Any anger would have been better directed at the fact that it could have been ‘trained’ to the point of dropping dead, which suggests that its state of health was not being properly monitored.  I have no vested interest whatever in the racing industry, and the question probably needs to be asked as to what proportion of the outrage and anger has been manufactured for fear of negative repercussions for the industry rather than out of genuine compassion and respect for the nameless horse.

Perhaps I should be more worried about my immediate response to yesterday’s BBC news coverage of babies starving to death in Yemen in the context of our contemptible government’s decision to cut our aid budget to Yemen by more than fifty percent.  The UK is still selling arms to Saudi Arabia whose proxy war in the Yemen has resulted in famine conditions for tens of thousands of impoverished people.  In direct contravention of a Tory manifesto commitment, £4 billion has been cut from our Foreign Aid budget, to the anger even of many Tories on the back-benches, as a contribution towards the hole in our finances caused by, among other things, the many more billions of pounds corruptly handed out to Tory chums during the pandemic without need for a formal tendering process or parliamentary approval.  I responded with anger and indignation to the coverage of the starving babies, but not with the same visceral distress. It is too easy to become inured to coverage of children starving to death in our grossly unequal world, and to feel a distanced anger rather than an emotional shock.   A stupid man sitting on a dead horse shouldn’t shock one’s sensibility more immediately than the many atrocities with far wider ramifications going on in the world around us.

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Fool and the Blind Man

26th November 

One of the more memorable, if enigmatic, lines from W.B. Yeats’ very late poem ‘The Circus Animals Desertion’ keeps going round in my mind:  ‘And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread….’  Yeats was alluding to the legend of Cuchulain, but the symbolism of the Fool – in the Elizabethan sense of the court jester – and the Blind Man seem peculiarly apposite.  In the present context the Fool needs no introduction, although Shakespeare’s Fools were often able to use their foolery as a front behind which a wisdom was to be found that is notably absent from the clown who is supposed to be leading our country at present.   The Blind Man is the one who, while seemingly able bodied, walks straight towards, and falls into, a gaping hole that almost everybody else can see.  Our Blind Man, Rishi Sunak, however eminently smooth, affable and seemingly reasonable, is, like our Fool, not gifted with foresight.  He is not a Tiresias figure – the blind but far-sighted seer of myth and legend – and seems incapable of seeing the pitfall in front of him.  While Sunak may be doing his best to shore up the sides of the Covid pit which the incompetence of his colleagues is digging ever deeper, the Brexit pit is one he is said to have been striding towards all his adult life, and he appears blindly oblivious to the danger.  So much so that the word wasn’t heard once as he outlined his plans in yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review.  The Brexit pit has been predicted by both the Governor of the Bank of England and the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to be destined to be at least twice as deep as the Covid pit.   

So whose was the bread the Fool and the Blind Man have “stolen”?  In the first instance, that of the 4.2 million children under 16 in UK who were already living below the poverty line in 2019 and whose situation will inevitably have become significantly worse during the pandemic.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission recently warned the government that the pandemic was having a ‘devastating’ impact on the well-being of children.  It took a 23 year-old football player to shame the Fool and the Blind Man into reversing their policy of discontinuing the provision of free school meals during the holidays.  And it isn’t because the feckless working class unemployed aren’t prepared to go out and work to provide for their children, as the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches would no doubt maintain: seventy percent of children in poverty, according to May Bulman in Tuesday’s Independent, have at least one parent who is in work.   In a context in which it was disclosed yesterday that £10 billion was wasted on PPE in the early months of the pandemic because government incompetence had ensured that the stock of PPE when the pandemic struck was grossly inadequate, imposing a freeze on most public sector salaries, which will amount to a real term decrease as Brexit sends prices soaring, seems pretty shameless.  It certainly won’t help to put the bread back on the table.  And all the while the Blind Man assures us that there won’t be a return to austerity.

Beyond the UK, the bread is being stolen from the poorest of the poor elsewhere in the world, as the Fool and the Blind Man set about changing the law to save £4 billion by cutting the legislated 0.7% of GDP that our laws dictate should go to foreign aid every year down to 0.5%.  The quantum of foreign aid that will be available after the 28% cut will, of course, also be significantly reduced by the fall in GDP resulting from the pandemic, and the much longer-term reduction in GDP resulting from a no-deal Brexit, which, the Blind Man asserted again on the Today programme this morning, wouldn’t bother him.   This cut is being made in the same breath as four times as much, £16bn extra, is gifted to the Ministry of Defence to appease the Hooray Henrys on the Tory backbenches and pander to the Fool’s delusion that the UK is still the global superpower it was in the 19th century.  Tory backwoodsmen will be arguing that much of our foreign aid is wasted as a result of corruption in the countries to which it is granted, in a context in which it has been made all too clear that the £4 billion saving in financial aid is dwarfed by the tens of billions that have been squandered through the pandemic via the corrupt Tory ‘Chumocracy’ that has seen huge contracts going to line the pockets of wholly unqualified friends and relations of Tory Ministers, MPs and special advisers.  “Chumocracy” is a grotesquely inelegant word, but then what it describes isn’t very pretty either.   British foreign aid buys us wholly disproportionate goodwill and influence around the world, vastly more (pace the Blind Man’s feeble plaint on the Today programme) than our defence force, and once converted into local currencies at very advantageous exchange rates brings enormous benefits.   Cutting the aid budget is short-sighted and mean spirited, but then, of course, a Fool is a fool and a Blind Man is, by definition, the apogee of short-sightedness.