From David Maughan Brown in York: The Light Thickens

December 19th

It feels as though we in UK are on the cusp of an historic moment of enormous significance, as Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, tells us that there is still a chance of a free trade agreement with the EU, but emphasizes that the path is narrowing very fast.  Will our portly and lumbering Prime Minister manage to squeeze himself along that narrow path above a cliff-edge, whose dangers he has been warned about ad nauseam for the past four years, without either stumbling or throwing himself over the edge, taking us all with him?  Does he even want to try?  Boris Johnson, the supreme opportunist, who only decided to support the ‘Leave’ side in the referendum because he thought that was the best route to becoming Prime Minister, is rumoured now to be the most extreme Brexiteer of them all.

We have saddled ourselves with a government that is capable of threatening to bring legal action against the Labour Councils of Greenwich and Islington for having the temerity to close their schools for the Christmas break a week early and do their teaching online one week, because ‘Education is a National Priority’, and the next week of instructing schools to open their doors to only a minority of their pupils for the first week of term after Christmas and do their teaching online so that they can roll out an entirely unfeasible coronavirus testing programme.   It won’t have been coincidental that the legal threat was directed at Labour-run Councils.   So schools that had up to 21 members of staff away, either with the virus or self-isolating because of it, were forced to stay open, and teaching staff who desperately need a break after a very difficult and demanding term will have to spend their Christmas and New Year preparing for the logistically extremely complicated roll-out of the testing, that includes the training of hundreds of volunteers to administer the tests before the start of term.

Responses to the Tories way of handling their ‘National Priority’ have been vitriolic.  Paul Whiteman, the leader of the National Association of Headteachers has called it a “shambles” and accused the government of having ‘handed schools a confused and chaotic mess at the eleventh hour.’  The National Education Union has told Gavin Williamson, our adolescent Secretary of State for Education, that his plans are ‘inoperable’: “Telling school leaders, on the last day of term [for many schools], that they must organise volunteers and parents, supported by their staff, to test pupils in the first week of term, whilst Year 11 and 13 pupils are on site for in-school teaching, is a ridiculous ask.”   Both unions have, as one might expect, been too polite to put it more bluntly and say that, once again, our government has shown itself totally incapable of distinguishing its collective arse from its elbow or, in more northerly terms, of ‘knowing t’other from which’.

Meanwhile the key sticking point in the post-Brexit trade negotiations appears to be the fishing industry which represents 0.12% of our national GDP and employs less than 0.1% of our national workforce.  What remotely sane government is prepared to hole its entire Covid-hit economy below the water-line for the sake of ensuring that its fishermen can rule its waves, even if those fishermen will still have to try to sell the majority of their newly-tariffed fish into a justifiably unforgiving European Union?

It is difficult for pessimism not to outweigh optimism when looking to the new year, and four more years of a shambolically incompetent and dishonest government, elected, as much as anything, on the strength of lies and populist xenophobia.  The ‘Home Office’ label suggests that that particular disgrace of a government department can be taken as representative of the country that is our home.  Leaving the issue of immigration entirely on one side, recent figures have shown that, under the auspices of the Home Office, black people in UK are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched, than white people; five times more likely to have force used against them by the police; and four times more likely to be arrested.  With memories of apartheid South Africa still all too vivid, it is perhaps unsurprising that pessimism should from time to time find its way into one’s poems.

Light thickens
 
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
(Shakespeare: Macbeth)
 
Light thickens.  Hope – hollowed to husks,
unsettled by stirrings in the air, 
whispers from the long grass –
waits for the wind to blow it away.
 
Dark shapes circle.
Hatched on the fringes of our rooky woods,
gorging on hate and fear,
they devour to husks the seeds of hope.
 
Their hate and fear is of the other, 
easy to sight, eagle-eyed, 
in the clear bright light of day,
but colour fades in the thickening light.
 
All sentinels who sound alarm
are othered now with stiff salutes,
as crosses are raised on distant hills
to await their time for burning.

From David Maughan Brown in York: “I’m the King of the Castle”

I’m the King of the Castle

5th December                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Over the course of many years of child-watching, if not child-minding, I’m sure most of us will have watched young children playing ‘I’m the King of the Castle’, a game defined by Collins as ‘a children’s game in which each child attempts to stand alone on a moundsandcastle, etc, by pushing other children off it.’  The game apparently has a long history: being referred to by Horace in 20BC; being evidenced in France in the 16th century; and having a 17thcentury Scottish variant that begins ‘I, William of the Wastle, Am now in my Castle’. The winner is usually the biggest and often the most obnoxious child, whose obnoxiousness all too readily asserts itself in the relish with which the next line, ‘and you’re the dirty rascal!’ is shouted.

However venerable its history, the game is pretty juvenile and most people will have grown out of it by the time they reach the advanced age of about ten and realize that the mythical sovereignty the King of the Castle is claiming is just that – mythical.  Some may spend the rest of their lives pushing as many other people as possible off their castle, but they tend not to chant about being King while they do so.  Not so our Prime Minister and his Brexiteer colleagues who are notable exceptions:  they are obsessed with the idea of King-of-Castle ‘sovereignty’ and can’t stop shouting about it.  If the ‘dirty rascals’ aren’t going to pay appropriate obeisance to that ‘sovereignty’ the Brexiteers will stomp off home and won’t ever play with them – ever, ever, ever again.

Punch cartoon

One of the many curiosities of this situation, one that would be worth exploring at greater length than I can here, if only to stop oneself from getting too angry about the childish stupidity of the ‘sovereignty’ obsession and too worried about its inevitable consequences, is the relationship between the ‘dirty rascals’ of the nursery rhyme and the ‘dirty foreigner’ trope that informs much popular culture, including children’s literature, from our esteemed Enid Blyton to Jane Pilgrim’s seemingly innocent Blackberry Farm series.   

Pilgrim’s The Adventures of Walter, which I always felt obliged to bowdlerize when I couldn’t avoid reading it in response to my very young children’s requests, is a case in point, a kind of infantile but racially charged bildungsroman, or perhaps, given its Pilgrim author, just a parable.   Instead of being content to remain on the pond at Blackberry Farm as his mother advises, Walter Duck insists on going off on his adventures to explore the wider world, but he encounters a group of ‘nasty dirty’ ducks who chase him away and he retreats back to Blackberry Farm, presumably to the end of his circumscribed days, having learnt the error of his ways.  It is all strongly reminiscent of the lines in Mrs C.F Alexander’s ‘All things bright and beautiful’: ‘God made them high and lowly/ He gave them their estate.’  But Jane Pilgrim is overlaying the ‘dirty foreigner’ trope on Mrs Alexander’s ‘The rich man in his palace/The poor man at his gate.’   What distinguishes the ‘dirty’ ducks that chase Walter is the fact, quite simply, that they are not white like Walter.  Presumably because they aren’t white, they are wantonly aggressive, operate as a gang, and are a very evident threat to all peace-loving young white ducks, as Walter’s mother clearly knew.  The Teniel cartoon above, taken from an early edition of Punch, captures the trope very well with its depiction of the ugly and deformed Irishman threatening the white-clad virgin while Britannia, also clothed in white, stands tall and protects her.

The official sanction for pushing other children off the castle under the guise that they are ‘dirty rascals’ offered by the rules of the game is obviously a license for bullies, and the name of the game, ‘I’m King of the Castle’ is manifestly over-gendered for our modern world.  If our small island is our castle, it is clear that those who see themselves as its Kings and Queens also see one of their sovereign responsibilities as being to keep all ‘dirty rascals’, who must by definition be rascals if they are ‘dirty’, off the island and, as far as possible, push the ones who have already settled here, courtesy, for example, of the SS Windrush, off the castle.   Looked at in this light, our Home Office would appear to be trying to implement a slow and covert form of ethnic cleansing

Nobody will be surprised that our current Queen of the Home Office castle, Priti Patel, is prone to grossly exaggerating the rascality of the ‘dirty rascals’ she is intent on pushing off the castle to this end.  She claimed that the planeload of West Indians she was trying to deport on 2nd December consisted of ‘vile criminals’ and alleged again that those she was trying to deport were ‘rapists and murderers’.   One has come to expect Tory Cabinet Ministers to tell lies, but this is taking it to an extreme.  Of the 23 who were taken off the flight at the last minute, none, as far as it is possible to ascertain, was a ‘vile criminal’.   Some were taken off because they could have been victims of modern slavery, others were taken off because the impact on the British children they were responsible for hadn’t been adequately assessed.  If you can’t push black children themselves off the castle just because they are black, you have to bully them indirectly via their foreign fathers.  One example of Patel’s ‘vile criminals’ will have to suffice, that of a Jamaican man who has lived in the UK for 27 years and has five British children he cares for of whom the youngest are 14, 11 and three.  He had been sentenced for substance abuse after developing a drug addiction, had been in jail for less than two years, during which time he overcame his addiction and became clean, and has been trying to resolve his immigration status since 2014.  As he said himself : ‘They throw a blanket over us, that everyone is a murderer, a rapist.  That’s the stigma they create.”  

Is it any surprise, with a racist climate like this being fostered by our Home Office, that a contemptible section of the football fans at a Millwall football match yesterday should have felt that they have been given license to boo the players when they ‘took a knee’ in support of Black Lives Matter before the game started? Our island castle is busy cultivating too many bullying kings.

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 David Maughan Brown in York: Reflections on Mangrove

The Mangrove Nine

16th November 

Yesterday evening’s brilliant BBC One screening of Mangrove, the first in a series of five films in the Small Axe series directed by Steve McQueen, was difficult to watch.  The historically accurate film covers the two years from 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, when Frank Critchlow established his Mangrove Trinidadian restaurant in Notting Hill, which rapidly became a much needed hub for the British-Caribbean community, to the 1970 Old Bailey trial of nine men and women of West Indian extraction who had been arrested following a protest march on the local police station.   The protest was the eventual outcome of eighteen months of racist harassment by the police who had conducted twelve violent and destructive raids on the Mangrove over that period under the pretence that, being run by black people, it was bound to harbour drug-dealers and prostitutes.  The trial lasted for 55 tense days during which the defendants were liable, if found guilty, to ten-year prison sentences for incitement to riot.   The acting across-the-board is mesmerising, the story-telling superbly nuanced, and the film has deservedly earned five star ratings from the critics.

It was difficult to watch for two reasons.  The first was that it was such a visceral reminder of so much that went on in South Africa during the apartheid years.  The film captures the vicious racial stereotyping, the casual racist brutality of the police,  vividly and chillingly.  And it manages to do so without caricature or overstatement.    PC Frank Pulley, superbly acted, still a constable after 15 years in the police force, epitomises the racist bully who takes his own inadequacies out on those he assumes to be powerless to resist.   The film reveals the extent to which those in the dock are in every respect – morally, intellectually, and in terms simply of their common humanity – vastly superior to their corrupt and mendacious police accusers and, for that matter, to the inhumane court orderlies, the supercilious prosecutor and the establishment judge.  The film brought home to me, once again, just how naïve some of us in South Africa were to imagine during the 1970s and 1980s that Britain could be looked to for a model of decency and justice where the police and courts were concerned.  Give PC Pulley and his cronies a crash course in Afrikaans and they would have been entirely at home in the Suid Afrikaanse Polisie of the time.

The other reason it was difficult to watch was much more immediate and equally, if not more, visceral.  It was, quite simply, that there is still at least one arm of the British State, namely the Home Office, that blithely continues to operate with the same casual and dishonest brutality today.  The only way I can account for its appalling behaviour is by assuming that it must still be informed by a similar dehumanising racism.  We learnt from a report from Lizzie Dearden[1] in today’s The Independent that the latest device for stopping asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel in small boats in the Priti Patel box of tricks is to prosecute and imprison as a people smuggler any asylum seeker who has been coerced into steering one of the boats. Having been criminalised for trying to make sure that their fellow asylum seekers don’t drown, these asylum seekers then become liable for immediate deportation on their release from their up to 30 months imprisonment. A report in yesterday’s Observer revealed that many asylum seekers arriving by boat are being deported back to France before their asylum claims have been properly considered.  As was no doubt the case with the Mangrove Nine, who faced ridiculously exaggerated charges, the Crown Prosecution Service are cravenly acceding to, in this instance it would seem, the Home Secretary’s vicious whims.  

A second article in today’s The Independent, this time from May Bulman[2], draws our attention to a twenty-fold increase in the number of self-harm incidents in one of the detention centres holding asylum seekers who have arrived in small boats.   They are only taking to small boats in their desperation, it bears repeating, because safer routes to seek asylum, and in many instances join family members, in UK have been deliberately closed to them.   After the trauma and fear that drove them from their homes, after the hazards, hardship and hostility they have faced on their long journeys overland to reach the English Channel, after having had to pay people smugglers for the privilege of risking their lives to get here, it is hardly surprising that when they find themselves imprisoned on their arrival and threatened with immediate deportation before their claims to asylum have even been listened to they should self-harm in their utter desperation.   And this is the country that they looked to for sanctuary and justice.

We are being told that the departure of Cummings and Cain from Downing Street will give Boris Johnson a chance to ‘reset’ the direction of his government.   Now that he has crossed the threshold of the Promised Land of Brexit ‘sovereignty’, with or without a deal, one can only hope that he will demonstrate the statesmanship to look beyond the Brexit credentials of his cabinet ministers.    Unless he thinks that the majority of the British people are so brutally xenophobic that they are happy to go along with the  appalling way Patel wants asylum seekers treated, which I can’t bring myself to believe, he must, surely, taker a closer look at the role of Home Secretary.   Patel seemed to win some public sympathy via her account of the racism directed towards her when she was at school.  But it is common cause that the abused all too often end up as abusers, the bullied all too often become bullies themselves.   The outcome of the long-standing enquiry into Patel’s alleged bullying of her officials in the various government departments unfortunate enough to fall under her spell has been kept under wraps, no doubt for very good reason.   Now that Boris is having to self-isolate in the austere confines of his Downing Street flat he can, perhaps, find time to watch Mangrove.  As he does so, with a possible cabinet reshuffle in the back of his mind, he should perhaps ask himself whether it is possible that any of his current cabinet ministers have the instincts and mental attitudes of a grossly over-promoted 2020 version of PC Frank Pulley, and, if so, whether he wants them to continue to discredit any claims that the United Kingdom is a humane and civilised country.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/channel-crossings-migrant-boats-jailed-dinghies-smugglers-cps-b1722937.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/self-harm-detention-brook-house-asylum-seekers-b1668406.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Send them Home Office

September 30th

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”   The words of Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, “Do not go gentle into that good night”, come to mind – not in relation to old age burning and raving at the close of day, although there is no doubt a bit of that – but in the context of the liberal values our country has tried to uphold for so long being slowly but steadily extinguished.  This is a process that has been gathering momentum ever since the attack on the twin towers in 2001.

Following another of the more or less daily revelations about the Home Office that I wrote about in my entry for September 26th, today’s editorial in The Independent  draws readers’ attention to the malign intentions towards refugees and asylum-seekers articulated in the Tory manifesto at the last election, which included a commitment to reform the Human Rights Act, impose limitations on judicial review, and abandon the EU Dublin convention which establishes the criteria and mechanisms for determining which Member State is responsible for examining an asylum claim made in the EU.  As if that weren’t enough, the editorial also suggests that the Tories are considering passing a new law that would override “the UK’s treaty obligations under the 1950 European Human Rights Convention”, which would be another transgression of international law.

Yesterday’s revelation, again from the pen of May Bulman, was about an unnamed Ugandan woman who this week finally won her case against the Home Office for rejecting her asylum claim, made on the grounds that she is lesbian, that gay relationships are illegal in Uganda and that she would have been under threat of harm had she stayed in Uganda.  She arrived in the UK in 2011 to seek asylum but was, unsurprisingly, one of the 99% of applicants who fell foul of the Home Office’s “fast-track system” for assessing asylum applications, whereby applicants were kept in detention and allowed two weeks to obtain the evidence necessary to back their claim for asylum.  Her case was rejected on the grounds that whoever interviewed her on behalf of the Home Office didn’t believe she was gay.  The system was discontinued in 2015 following a High Court ruling that it was ‘structurally unfair’, but the applicant in question had already been deported back to Uganda in December 2013.  Once she was back in Uganda, her fears were fully realised when she was gang raped – presumably an example of the appalling crime known, in South Africa at least, as “corrective rape” – and ended up pregnant.  The High Court ruled last year that her deportation was unlawful as she had not had enough time to obtain the evidence necessary to support her case, and simultaneously ruled that her detention had been unlawful.

This might all be regarded as past history – after all, that particular system was discontinued in 2015 – but for the fact that it required a High Court decision last year before she was allowed back to the UK, and, even then, the Home Office appealed the High Court’s decision so that it had to go to the Appeal Court this year.  Anyone who might be inclined to interpret the Home Office’s behaviour in this regard as being gratuitously and viciously vindictive would be vindicated by the fact that, believe it or not, the Home Office is reported to be considering appealing once again, this time against the Appeal Court’s decision.  Being gang-raped is obviously not enough to indicate that an asylum–seeker is in some danger.

If this incident seems indicative of more than a little madness on the part of whoever makes such decisions in the Home Office, today’s further revelation suggests a seriously dangerous level of insanity.  It is reported, both on the BBC’s Today programme this morning and in The Independent, that our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has in all seriousness been contemplating flying asylum seekers out to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic – a rocky island in the South Atlantic 4000 miles from UK with 800 inhabitants – to have their applications processed.  If Robben Island, a mere 5 miles from apartheid South Africa’s mainland, was far enough to stop prisoners from absconding, 4000 miles should do the trick for the Tories.  This is the kind of story that any half-intelligent newspaper editor would reject as being too obviously implausible to fill the annual April Fools slot in the April 1st edition.  Quite so – but the mad Patel apparently thinks it could be a goer.  This is taking things a lot further even than Theresa May’s ill-judged 2013 “Go Home” billboards, and smacks of a slavish attempt to imitate Australia’s inhume incarceration of asylum seekers on Nauru island in Papua New Guinea.   Patel must either be verifying the purity of the drugs her police force is confiscating, or she must be so xenophobic as to be comprehensively insane.  Either way, Boris Johnson would be wise to get rid of her – preferably to Ascension Island – as soon as possible.  But when was Boris ever wise?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Unhomely Office

September 26th

I can only assume that it is the legacy of having had to watch from close quarters, and protest unavailingly about, the vindictive cruelty with which the apartheid government treated black South Africans in the 1970s and 1980s that gives me an impotent and sickening sense of déjà vu as I watch our Home Office treating asylum seekers with an identical callousness.   Many of the asylum seekers who are having to risk the channel crossing in small boats in their desperation to come here, some to join family members already here, only because more conventional routes to get here have been blocked off using Covid-19 as the excuse, are fleeing exactly the same kind of oppression, persecution and often torture to which black South Africans resisting apartheid were subjected.   Anyone who might think I am overstating the case has only to read a series of disparate reports that have appeared in The Independent over the past ten days.

On Saturday 19th, we find May Bulman, The Independent’s Social Affairs Correspondent, reporting that the Home Office has decided that now is a good time, just as the predicted second surge of Covid-19 starts to gather momentum, to lift its ban on the eviction of asylum seekers who have had their applications refused.  Given that more than 50% of appeals against refusals are successful (itself an indictment of the Home Office), with over 23,000 people having their refusals overturned on appeal, and given that appeals can take up to a year to be heard, this means that many people who are still legitimately in the asylum system are about to be made homeless as winter draws in.  May Bulman quotes Stuart McDonald, SNP MP: “With Covid on the rise again this is an utterly appalling decision by the Home Office, putting both asylum seekers and the public at risk.  Making people homeless and destitute as the pandemic continues is especially shocking when that pandemic is known to be of particular danger to those very populations and indeed BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) people.”

On Wednesday 23rd, May Bulman reported that the Home Office, after suspending the requirement since March due to the risk of infection, is once again, just as the second wave of infections gets going, insisting that asylum-seekers and victims of trafficking who have been formally identified as modern slavery victims must report in person at reporting locations.  This means having somehow to find the money for fares and risk infection by using public transport to travel significant distances at a time when the government is advising against the use of public transport. This wholesale disregard for health and safety considerations echoes an August 8th report about asylum seekers being deported on flights without any prior Covid-19 testing being required either for those being deported or for their escorts.  If telephone calls have sufficed to establish people’s whereabouts for the past six months why are they not good enough now?  Nazek Ramadan, director of Migrant Voice, suggests an answer: ‘…looking tough on immigration is more important to them [the Home Office] than keeping people safe.”

On Thursday 24th, May Bulman’s now almost daily revelations tell us that, regardless of the already over 50% success of appeals, the Home Office is planning to add asylum interviews to the ever-expending list of this government’s ideologically-driven outsourcing of public sector activities. She says that ‘many of the firms in the running for this new contract – including G4S, Serco, and Sopra Stera – have been embroiled in previous scandals over handling of immigrations services.’  Our government has clearly learnt nothing whatever from the spate of complaints, not to mention suicides and deaths from other causes, that have resulted from the Department of Work and Pensions’ insistence on outsourcing benefit tests for sick and disabled people to wholly inappropriate and manifestly incompetent private companies working to targets rather than in the interests of the sick and disabled.  The chief executive of Freedom from Torture is reported as having described this move on the part of the Home Office as ‘alarming’ and commented: “Asylum decisions often turn on what happens in the interview and there is a real risk of forcible return to torture if mistakes are made.”  But why would the Home Office, or this government as a whole, care about people being returned to torture as long as it can be seen, as Ramadan suggests, to be being “tough on immigration”?

On Saturday 26th, we find Rob Merrick, The Independent’s  Deputy Political Editor, reporting on hate speech described by Simon Woolley, a former 10 Downing Street race advisor, as “wrong, reckless and at worst dangerous, because this type of language easily stirs up racial hatred” uttered by no less a figure than our Home Secretary herself – Priti Patel.  Patel apparently declared in a recent Zoom meeting that she was determined to stamp out the “criminality that takes place and that has happened through Traveller communities….”  Patel might well have been bought up on a diet of Enid Blyton, whose fall-back villains were all too often thieving ‘Gypsies’, but that is no excuse for this kind of unthinking racial generalisation.  As it happens, Merrick quotes Lord Woolley, former adviser to the Downing St. Racial Disparity Unit, as telling The Independent that the crime rate among Travellers is, in fact, lower than the national average.   Johnson should obviously have sacked Priti Patel long ago, as his predecessor did the last time Patel was a cabinet minister, but why sack an ardent Brexit supporter from the key role of Home Secretary just because she happens to give every appearance of being an equally ardent racist?

Patel elicited a good deal of media sympathy, including from The Independent, when she recently recounted how she had been racially abused as a “Paki” at school.  But that, very evidently, does not preclude her from being capable of indefensible racial generalisations herself.  Anyone who lived through apartheid will be all too well aware that one of the frequent responses of people who weren’t granted the unearned privilege of being classified as “white” was to interiorise the racism and transfer it, sometimes with interest, to other groups lower down apartheid’s iniquitous racial hierarchy.   Boris Johnson would do well to instruct her to take part in ‘unconscious bias training’ as has been suggested, Merrick reports, in a letter written to her by more than 80 ‘leading academics, race equality organisations, and politicians.’

As long ago as May 2006 John Reid, shortly after taking over as Home Secretary, declared that “Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.”   So what has changed in the intervening years apart, perhaps, from the need to put “leadership” firmly at the head of the list of glaring inadequacies and add institutional racism to the list?

From David Maughan Brown in York: Uncertainty and certainties

August 6th

For those of us fortunate enough not to have been directly affected by the sickness and death, the bereavements, and the worries about money, jobs and schooling that Covid-19 has brought with it, the main burden has probably been uncertainty.  We wonder when will we get to visit family in other countries again, and when will they be able to come to visit us; when will the elective surgery we are waiting for be possible; when will we get to hug our children and grandchildren again; when will it feel safe to do something as ‘normal’ as going to the cinema again.   

So it is kind of government ‘spokesmen’ (seemingly always ‘men’ even when they happen to be women) to provide a level constancy and certainty in our lives for us, what T.S.Eliot might have referred to as ‘the still point in a turning world’, even if it is the government they represent that is doing much of the U-turning.   The constancy lies in the certainty that, however indefensible, they will always find a way of denying that the government department they represent has ever done anything wrong.  Today’s example was comfortingly predictable.   In response to people being impertinent enough to ask about the £150 million of our money recently spent by government on buying 50 million useless face-masks for the NHS, the spokesman responsible for answering silly questions responded by categorically assuring us that: “There is a robust process in place to ensure orders are of high quality and meet strict safety standards, with the necessary due diligence undertaken on all Government contracts.”  Really? I am sure we were also reassured to have another element of constancy confirmed:  “Throughout this global pandemic, we have been working tirelessly to deliver PPE to protect people on the front line.”  Everybody in government is always working ‘tirelessly’, even Boris, and not many more than 300 NHS workers and care workers had died from Covid-19 by the end of May, who knows many of them as a direct result of a lack of adequate PPE.

It turns out that our government of all the talentless, this time via our fascistic Home Office, has been caught out in another of the ‘robust processes’ it has in place to ensure things.  In this instance they were using a ‘decision-making algorithm’ to ensure that as few Africans as possible were granted visas to darken our national doorway.    Anyone who might have been puzzled by the bewildering number of African academics who have been denied visas to come to UK conferences over recent years now has the answer.  Visa applications from Africans have, in fact, been more than twice as likely to be rejected as similar applications from anywhere else in the world.   Those of us who suspected that it was simply because there were too many racists working in the Home Office were wrong, it turns out that it was a racist computer that was at fault, not that the computer will have programmed itself.  To forestall legal action against it, the Home Office has, according to the Independent, suspended the offending ‘digital streaming tool’ pending a redesign.   If the original design involved the computer scanning the photographs on the applications to try to identify the friendly black people who should be welcome in UK – our influential Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s, ‘piccanninies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’, no doubt – the designers of the new system probably need to remember that most applicants are too old to be considered piccanninies, and that nobody is allowed to smile any kind of smile in a visa photograph.   True to form, the Home Office spokesman assured us that the withdrawal of the programme wasn’t an indication that it was flawed in any way, but rather, “We have been reviewing how the visa application streaming tool operates and will be redesigning our processes to make them even more streamlined and secure.’   So any uncertainty about the system can be dispelled: we can rest assured that the new system will keep an even higher proportion of African applicants away.

But it is manifestly unfair to single out individual departments of state.   It is our government of all the talentless as a whole that provides us with certainty in these uncertain times.  We know with absolute certainty that they won’t meet any of the targets they set and will lie about the reasons for not meeting them; their messaging will always be hopelessly confused and confusing; they will always try to centralise any action to be taken in combatting Covid-19 that should be devolved to local authorities; and by the time this pandemic is under control many more people will have died in UK than anywhere else in Europe as a direct result of their incompetence.   But the certainties to be found in public life don’t compensate for the uncertainties of private life.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Stateless in Syria

July 17th

Every day that passes provides fresh insight into the kind of government we, as members of the UK electorate, have landed ourselves with for the next four and a half years. Today’s response to the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship provides yet another window into the government’s contempt for human rights, and further evidence of just how little credence should be given to the pretence that the Huawei decision had anything whatever to do with China’s abysmal human rights record.   

A fifteen year-old schoolgirl, technically still a child, is successfully brainwashed by terrorist fanatics and sets off, accompanied by two friends of similar age, to join them in Syria.  Our much-bruited Prevent programme would appear not to have detected the fact that they were being radicalised; the police had interviewed all three of them when a friend of theirs left for Syria a few months earlier, but left it at that; our ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office failed to stop them at the border or prevent them from leaving the country.   They join ISIS, Begum marries an ISIS fighter, and they lend their tacit (perhaps active, we don’t know) support to ISIS atrocities, and when ISIS is defeated Shamima Begum turns up in a refugee camp.   Our government, ignoring her right to a fair trial, promptly disowns her and removes her British citizenship on the specious grounds that in spite of being born, brought up and radicalised in UK, she has a technical right to Bangladeshi citizenship.  The Government of Bangladesh equally promptly, and understandably, says she is the UK’s responsibility and denies her that right, so she is rendered stateless.  This in spite of the fact that no less an expert on the deprivation of human rights than Theresa May is on record as saying that ‘it is illegal for any country to make its citizens stateless.’

The Appeal Court’s decision merely means that Shamima Begum should be allowed back to present her case, and does not imply that she should be allowed to stay in UK.   But that ruling, all too predictably, was enough to provoke an outpouring of bile from the frothing loons of the right-wing tabloid press.   The Sun, as so often, epitomises the fanaticism with its headline: ‘Shamima Begum ruling is monstrous – this vile fanatic has no place on our soil.’   Given that the right-wing media will always be pulling whichever of this puppet government’s strings Dominic Cummings isn’t pulling himself, the Home Office response was all too depressingly predictable:  it will appeal the Appeal Court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.   Whatever Shamima Begum has done wrong should be exposed in open trial in UK , and she should be sentenced accordingly.   The arbitrary life-sentence of statelessness in a Syrian refugee camp, which in the age of Covid-19 probably amounts to a death sentence, handed down by the Home Secretary is manifestly unjust, however convenient for the government and the Home Office it might be in helping them to avoid being held to account for allowing Begum to be radicalised and to leave the country in the first place.  

Shamima Begum was an all too obviously impressionable child when she was brain-washed into leaving the UK at the age of fifteen.   How far have we actually come in the fewer than seventy years since a fourteen year-old boy could be hanged as a ‘terrorist’ under the State of Emergency in Kenya, in the name of our of still reigning monarch, for the offence of being found in possession of a bullet?  And can we have any confidence whatever that The Sun wouldn’t still think that that was a good idea?

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A time to break down, and a time to build up’

June 24th

From time to time throughout my adult life I have found the words of Pete Seeger’s 1962 song ‘Turn, turn, turn’ running through my mind.   The vast majority of those words aren’t, of course, Pete Seeger’s: but for the repeated ‘Turn, turn, turn’, and ‘I swear it’s not too late’, they are all taken directly, if in a different order, from the evocatively poetic King James Version of the Bible.  Over the last week or two the phrase that has kept coming to mind has been ‘a time to break down, and a time to built up’, bearing in mind that ‘break down’ fits the song’s rhythm a whole lot better than ‘dismantle’ would.

‘Dismantling’ lodged in my mind two weeks ago when the Minneapolis Council announced its startlingly radical, but clearly long overdue, response to the murder of George Floyd.  The Council President, Lisa Bender, told CNN that a majority of members of the Council had ‘committed to dismantling policing as we know it in the city of Minneapolis and to rebuild with our community a new model of public safety that actually keeps our community safe.’  She followed this up by indicating that the Council was looking to shift funding towards community-based strategies.   A two-minute internet search reveals that the Minneapolis Police Department, which initially described George Floyd’s death as a ‘medical incident’, has a long and very ugly record of police brutality.

Monday’s very extensive media coverage of the Reading park murders showed what a good day it was, if not exactly ‘to bury bad news’, certainly to distract attention from embarrassing anniversaries.  Monday was the 72ndanniversary of the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks.  Given the scandal surrounding the treatment of many of those who arrived on the Empire Windrush, it won’t be remotely coincidental that the ‘Empire’ part of the ship’s name tends to be omitted in references to it a country that still, apparently entirely without embarrassment, attaches the ‘British Empire’ moniker to the various Medals, Members, Officers and Commanders of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire that make up the major part of its Honours awards. 

On Monday evening the Channel 4 News resisted the distraction offered by the events in Reading to the extent of carrying a four-minute piece on the family of Ann-Mari Madden, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica on the Empire Windrush, and her four children.  Mrs Madden is a British citizen, as are her four children, but their lives have been blighted by our Home Office’s twenty-year long refusal, in spite of every last shred of evidence the family could offer over all those years, to recognise that fact on the grounds that they didn’t have passports to prove their citizenship.   As if the stress of losing friends and career opportunities was not enough, one of the children was threatened with arrest and deportation before they were finally able to take their case to the Windrush Task Force. The Task Force managed in 24 days to achieve what the Home Office had clearly spent 20 years successfully endeavouring not to achieve.  The Madden family have submitted a claim for compensation but seem likely to have to wait another 20 years to see any.  The Home Office has so far managed to process a total of 60 claims and distributed about £1 million out of the estimated £300-500 million it is estimated it will in the end have to pay out.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, Queen of the Hostile Environment, has refused to apologise for the foot-dragging reimbursements, excusing the delay on the grounds that the Home Office is handling them in a ‘sensitive way’.   ‘Home Office’ and ‘sensitive’ go together about as comfortably as ‘Minneapolis Police Department ‘ and ‘gentle’ would.   Which brings me back to ‘dismantling’.   The viciously vindictive manner in which the Madden family, like so many others, has been treated over the past decades is strongly reminiscent of the very worst aspects of the Department of the Interior in South Africa under apartheid.  It is, quite simply, inconceivable that the Maddens would have been treated so appallingly for that length of time had they not been black.  In May 2006, the then Home Secretary, John Reid, declared of the Home Office that: ‘Our system is not fit for purpose. It is inadequate in terms of its scope, it is inadequate in terms of its information technology, leadership, management systems and processes.’  The Home Office has had 14 years since then to get its act together, the hostile environment is still all too obviously still with us, and now it would seem that the only solution is to dismantle it.  If the Minneapolis Police Department can be dismantled, so can the Home Office.  It is ‘a time to build up’ something very different in its place.   Whatever takes its place should not be led by someone whose sole qualification for the job (apart from having been fired from a less senior one previously, which Boris would obviously identify with) is that she was either blinkered enough to think that Brexit was a good idea or duplicitous enough to pretend to think so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Protests against racism

June 7th

Protest marches against racism, most notably under apartheid, have been so memorable and regular a feature of much of my life that I am finding it increasingly frustrating not to be able to do anything active by way of demonstrating my support for those protesting against the murder of George Floyd, and institutionalized racism more generally.   Judging by the TV news coverage, the proportion of ‘vulnerable’ protesters (in this new world in which anyone over 70 is, by definition, ‘vulnerable’) is far lower than usual.  Of course the news footage has made it all too clear that anyone who protests in USA is vulnerable when it comes to police brutality.  The absence of older protesters suggests that, because we are statistically 500 times more likely to be seriously affected by Covid-19 than people who are only 20, even the most inveterate protesters of my age are with good reason less inclined right now to take part in large protest gatherings which are bound to preclude social-distancing.  But that does nothing to lessen the frustration.  Nor does the fact that I can’t possibly march more than a few hundred yards until such time as I can have a fusion operation on my back – and today’s Independent suggests that I am now one of ten million people waiting for non-emergency procedures of one sort or another.  I could ride my bike, but bicycles can’t very easily be accommodated in protest marches.

George Floyd’s killing, passively assisted by the three other policemen with him, was an outrage and it took far too long, even for the USA, for them all to be arrested and for charges to be brought against them.  It will no doubt be argued that they are ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise squeaky-clean police force.  The extraordinary footage of the elderly white man being pushed to the ground by the policemen in Buffalo, falling backwards, hitting his head on the pavement, and being left lying unconscious with a pool of blood seeping rapidly from a head wound is, in its way, more telling.   Afro-Americans are murdered by white policemen time and time again in the USA and I have no doubt the ‘bad apple’ argument is trotted out every time.  What was telling in Buffalo is that one policeman did try to tend to the fallen man but was hurried on by his colleagues, and that when the two men who appeared to be responsible were suspended, the entire 57 man emergency response squad resigned in protest. No 57 varieties there.  One can only hope that by doing so they will all be charged as accessories to the violent assault.  Whether or not that happens, and it probably won’t, this episode has blown the ‘one bad apple’ argument out of the water:  that whole barrel-full of apples has declared itself to be bad.

Leaving aside the almost certain second spike in Covid-19 infections that seems bound to result, it has been encouraging to see so many people coming out to protest against racism.   Many of those who have been interviewed by reporters have expressed optimism that this is the ‘break-through’ moment; that now something really will be done to address institutionalised racism in USA (and Australia and UK).  To which I can only respond with a world-weary sadness.  Would it were so.  As both South Africa and the United States show all too clearly, there are no break-through moments for societies built for centuries on institutionalised racism.   If ever there were was the potential for such moments, the elections of Mandela and Obama as Presidents should have been ones, but they only made the smallest of dents.  It will take generations to eradicate the legacies of slavery and apartheid from the consciousness of individuals instilled from birth with notions of racial superiority.

Racism hasn’t been codified in our law and practice in the UK in the way it has in USA and South Africa, but the UK is obviously not exempt from a similar legacy of institutional racism: much of our wealth was built on the backs of slaves, the history of Empire is not one to be proud of, and many black people have died at the hands of the police over the years here too.   More recently the racism and xenophobia underlying much of the Leave rhetoric in the 2016 Brexit referendum struck enough of a chord with the electorate to win the day, and in the process has given copious licence for racist abuse.   Much of the behaviour of our Home Office, the body responsible both for policing and immigration, is nakedly racist, as exemplified most obviously by the ongoing Windrush scandal.   There are multiple layers of irony in our Home Secretary’s instruction to us all not to attend this weekend’s protests against racism – if one could be bothered to waste time unpeeling them.  Priti Patel, recently crowned Queen of the Hostile Environment, whose presence in UK in the first place is entirely the result of Idi Amin’s racist expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda, takes the lead for the government in ordering people not to attend demonstrations against racism – once again, you couldn’t make it up. Perhaps, given the very real difficulty associated with protest marches during lockdown, they did try to find a credible cabinet minister to deliver the message but realised that there isn’t one.