From David Maughan Brown in York: Nessun dorma

Covering over the racist graffiti

July 14th

What kind of bizarre moral universe is one living in when it is professional football managers and players, rather than Prime Ministers and their governments, who find themselves having to provide moral leadership to a country?

All too often in the past the England football team has given the impression of being populated by talented but grossly overpaid and underperforming egotists who were as incapable of behaving themselves off the field as they were unable to subordinate their own egos for the good of the team on it.  England football managers have come and gone in recent years with varying success where results were concerned, but seldom with any great conviction when it came to integrating those multiple egos into a harmonious whole. 

How very different are the present manager and team.   The wholly unflamboyant Gareth Southgate is, besides being a shrewd tactician, a thoughtful and articulate student of the game and an outstanding leader.  He is almost superhuman in his ability to remain calm and in control on the touch-line.  His young team are highly talented and superbly integrated, in every sense of the word.  They play for each other and look after each other, and very clearly respect their manager – to the point where there was never any sign of resentment when they were substituted, even on the one occasion on which Southgate found himself needing to substitute Grealish, who had relatively recently come onto the field as a substitute himself.  The togetherness of the team was very impressive when they were winning, but even more so when they eventually lost in the final.   The footage of the other players and Southgate himself crowding round to hug and console the three players who had missed their penalties was starkly different from the footage, shown often over the past fortnight, of Southgate walking off the field on his own after missing his crucial penalty in the semi-final in 1996.

There was a sickening inevitability about the torrent of racial abuse that was unleashed on social media as a result of the fact that it just happened to be three of the black players in this very diverse team who missed their penalties on this occasion.  But that has also served to demonstrate the off-field strengths of this manager and team and the affection in which they are now held by a great many supporters.  At one level that affection is visibly demonstrated by the sticking of multiple messages of support for Rashford and, by implication the team, on a mural in Manchester that had been defaced with racist abuse, as seen in the photograph.

At another level the strength and self-belief of the team are clear from Tyrone Mings’ preparedness to call out the hypocrisy of our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and by implication our Prime Minister, who both went on record to condemn the racist abuse of the three players, having spectacularly failed to condemn the booing that greeted the team’s ‘taking of the knee’ as soon as football fans were allowed into the stadiums to watch the matches.   Mings, who has been one of the less prominent of England’s players where speaking out against racism is concerned, was commendably forthright: ‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as “Gesture Politics” and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we are campaigning against happens.’

By contrast with the principled stand against racism taken by the England football players, one wonders how it is possible for a ridiculously expensive and pretentious public school like Eton to imbue its pupils with so little self-awareness that Boris Johnson can condemn the ‘appalling’ racist abuse of English players and expect anyone to take him remotely seriously.  This is the same Boris Johnson who talks unapologetically about ‘piccaninnies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’ and Muslim women in burqas looking like ‘letter-boxes’.   The same Boris Johnson who is quite happy to persuade enough of his disgusting Tory MPs to vote for an indefinite prolongation of the cut to Financial Aid to see off those of his more principled Tory colleagues who think that allowing hundreds of thousands of children to die entirely unnecessary deaths isn’t a good idea.  Why would Johnson worry?  None of those children are English, and the vast majority of them of them will be black, many of them no doubt in his view just ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles.’

Who would ever have guessed that a time could come when one can be absolutely certain that England would be a more principled and better country if it were to be led by a team of football players and their manager?  It might also, of course, be a better governed country if it were to be run by a group of brave and idealistic footballers rather than our present bunch of corrupt and self-interested Tory politicians, forever playing to their xenophobic right-wing constituents.  It could hardly be run much worse.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Drain the swamp”?

June 8th 2021

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Which comes first, a racist and xenophobic electorate that chooses a Prime Minister and government in its own image, or a corrupt and xenophobic Prime Minister and government whose racism and xenophobia give license to a section of the electorate to put its own worst instincts on public display?   Sunday’s edition of The Observer  (6th June) provides enough material across a range of fronts to make an ultimately futile engagement with the latter conundrum an attractive alternative to sinking into a profound depression as one wades through the morass.   The journalism, as always with The Observer, is excellent; the material they have to write about is in many cases a putrid swamp.

The edge of the swamp is entered on page two with an article featuring Gareth Southgate’s (the England football manager) articulation of his team’s determination to continue to ‘take a knee’ before England’s Euro matches as a gesture of the team’s solidarity in rejecting the racism to which England’s black footballers are all too often subjected, regardless of the booing from English ‘fans’ sufficiently racist to boo their own team.  A Tory MP, one Lee Anderson, has expressed himself so incensed with the ‘taking of the knee’ that he will boycott future games.  That will at least result in one fewer Conservative in the crowd whose non-racial credentials are, at the very least, questionable.

The all too predictable follow-on from an article featuring racist booing is the first of a number of articles featuring our unhomely Home Office.  An article by Mark Townsend (p.8) points to the likelihood of 300k EU nationals soon finding themselves the victims of another Windrush-type scandal as decisions about their ‘settled’ status are delayed by the Home Office beyond its own arbitrary deadline.  Townsend quotes Pierre Makhlouf, assistant director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, saying: ‘The ability of the Home Office to refuse entry, to detain and deport people is the Brexit experience that unfortunately all EU nationals are being forced to learn, now that they are being treated in the same way as non-EU nationals.’  It is hardly surprising in these circumstances that the hospitality industry and hospitals in the UK, dependant for so long on EU workers, particularly nurses, should find themselves desperately short-staffed.  So dire is this wholly predictable situation that even Tim Martin, the chairman of Wetherspoon’s pub-chain, as delusionally enthusiastic a supporter of Brexit as one could have found, has called on the government to create a visa scheme specifically for EU workers (‘It’s a crisis.  I’ve spent all week trying to recruit chefs, but they don’t exist,’ Joanna Partridge and Richard Partington, p.54.) 

A little further in, one sinks into ‘Global Britain’s’ Foreign Aid cut, as one finds Mark Lowcock, who used to be a permanent secretary in the Department for International Development before Johnson’s government demonstrated its enthusiasm for International Development by doing away with the Department, talking about the famine in Ethiopia which, he pointed out, is the worst famine problem the world has seen for a decade: ‘Last year, the UK reported to the UN the provision od $108m of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia.  This year they have so far reported $6m’ (p.10).  In Ethiopia alone, never mind the other countries where the cuts have decimated humanitarian programmes, thousands and thousands of people, mainly children, are going to die as a direct result of this decision. 

Michael Savage’s article goes on to quote Caroline Noakes, a former Tory cabinet minister, saying: “The cuts to UK aid represent just 1% of what the Chancellor is borrowing this year.  But they mean funding for the UN’s reproductive health programme has been cut by 85%.  The UN says this aid would have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths.’  Why is the government doing this?  Not because it needs to try to claw back the costs of the pandemic but, quite simply, because it is convinced that its electorate wants to see ‘charity’ beginning at home.  The government obviously doesn’t tell that electorate how many global babies and young children ‘Global Britain’ is going to allow to die in the process.  Two equally excoriating and depressing articles by Andrew Rawnsley (p.45) and David Davis (p.51), the former Foreign Office minister, point to the extent to which the decision tarnishes what international reputation the UK has left after Brexit.  

If one has the stomach to continue to wade through the swamp, it isn’t long before one comes to David Conn’s special report titled ‘A Death on Moss Side’.  This is a detailed report into what looks very much to an outsider as a travesty of justice whose essence is conveyed in the trailer: ‘In 2017, 11 Manchester teenagers were jailed for a total of 168 years under controversial legislation for their part in a killing.  Now, as three of them launch an appeal, supporters claim the police investigation and the subsequent trials were riddled with racism’ (p.21).  The teenagers were found guilty and sentenced under the ‘joint enterprise law’ which David Conn elaborates on a follows: ‘A controversial legal mechanism, it holds that all participants in a violent incident, however minor (their) individual actions, equally guilty if they are found to have intentionally “encouraged and assisted” anybody who committed the most serious violence.’

A couple of years after the formal ending of apartheid in South Africa, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, I was telephoned by the man in charge of the local prison who told me that he had two prisoners, one a member of the ANC and another a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party who had been members of the university Grounds staff but had been convicted of murder and sentenced to very long prison terms.  They had both been present at a flare-up of the conflict between those two bitterly antagonistic parties when a man had been murdered, but both, he told me, had been model prisoners and there had been no evidence that either had been directly involved in the violence.  They had been convicted on a ‘common cause’ basis, i.e. under the South African equivalent of ‘joint enterprise’ law.  He told me he would release them if I was prepared to re-employ them.  I consulted the Vice Chancellor and we had very little hesitation in agreeing.   Both resumed work and didn’t murder anyone.   If the system in South Africa could set about trying to shake off its racist preconceptions after apartheid, perhaps the swamp can be drained here too – to borrow the words of the ultimate swamp-dweller.

Perhaps, but only perhaps.  The last word here should be given to Nick Cohen whose trenchant article provided The Observer with some of its last words, (‘Scroungers, lefty lawyers … the Tories duck scrutiny by inventing enemies’, p.52): ‘You cannot say anything coherent without generalising, and so, and to generalise, the British will lose their rights to challenge an over-mighty and underwhelming state because they hate foreigners more than they love political accountability.’  Perhaps the only way out of the swamp is for a leader of Nelson Mandela’s stature to reboot our national morality, and either win over our Tory cheer-leading gutter press or shame it into silence.  But there aren’t many people of that stature around.