From David Maughan Brown in York: At the end of the line?

The end of the line.

April 5th

Last week saw country-wide protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently making its way through the Committee Stage in Parliament that I wrote about on 19th March.   That’s the one that envisages a ten-year penalty for causing ‘serious annoyance or inconvenience’ during a protest, which has been described by lawyers as ‘an existential attack on the right to protest.’   The Bill hasn’t been passed yet, but even so it would appear to have given the Metropolitan Police the confidence to feel that they now have free rein where protests are concerned.  On Saturday night two legal observers from Black Protest Legal Support, who were observing a protest in London, were detained by the police who were, it is reported, perfectly happy to acknowledge their status as observers: ‘Both people arrested were acting as legal observers at the protest.’*

All through the last thirty-five years of apartheid in South Africa, starting in 1956, the Black Sash – described by Nelson Mandela on his eventual release from prison as ‘the conscience of white South Africa’– held protest stands and marches to protest against the vicious cruelties of apartheid.   Protest stands were held on Saturday mornings in Pietermaritzburg through the 1970s and 1980s during which the members of the Sash, wearing their black sashes to symbolise the death of the constitution, would stand on the pavement of the main street holding their placards, having to stand well apart from each other to avoid infringing one or another of apartheid’s draconian anti-protest laws, most notably the Riotous Assemblies Act.   Isolated as they were, the women were easy targets for Security Branch intimidation as well as for abuse from apartheid-supporting white passers-by, so two or three men, of which I was sometimes one, were always asked to monitor the protests.   The police knew who we were, and knew we were monitoring their behaviour at the protests, but no one was ever arrested merely for observing one of the protests.

A Black Sash stand before the Riotous Assemblies Act came into force

Saturday’s arrests of two observers followed the arrests of four others from the same organisation on March 16thwhich had already prompted Liberty to bring legal action against the Metropolitan Police.  Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty responded to Saturday’s arrests by saying: ‘Liberty is already taking legal action against the Met for previous unlawful arrests of legal observers. Continuing to arrest independent monitors is a scandalous attack on the right to protest, and demonstrates exactly why people are taking to the streets against the government’s plans to give the police even more powers.’  

The same week saw our Home Office issuing a press release in which our honourable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is quoted, according to a Microsoft News report, as stating that modern slavery safeguards are being ‘rampantly abused’.  The press release, we are told, claims that there have been ‘major increases’ in ‘child rapists, people who threaten national security and failed asylum seekers […] taking advantage of modern slavery safeguards’ in order to prevent their removal and enable them to stay in the UK.**  No evidence of these ‘major increases’, let alone any evidence of an increase in failed asylum applications, is given.  A group of barristers is reported to have submitted a complaint to the Home Office accusing it of misleading the public on immigration issues in the UK in breach of the civil service code by, among other things, equating ‘child rapists’ with ‘failed asylum seekers’, and in the process of contravening core values in the civil service code: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality.  No surprise there where Patel is concerned. 

The coordinator of the barristers’ complaint, Rudolph Spurling, said Patel’s gratuitous attacks against the asylum system were particularly concerning in view of the new immigration plan she launched a few days later.  He added: ‘Lumping in failed asylum seekers with “child rapists” and “people who pose a threat to our national security and serious criminals” was an egregious attempt to demonise people who’ve not been shown to pose any danger to the public. Furthermore, there was no attempt to justify the rhetoric with relevant statistics.’  One of the more striking features of the new immigration plan is its prioritising of the way in which asylum seekers arrive in the UK over the merit or otherwise of their claims for asylum.

Last week also saw a report in The Independent revealing that the Home Office is intending to carry on until September keeping to the same high-density concentration of asylum seekers at Napier Barracks in Kent that resulted in almost 200 people being infected with Covid-19 in January.***  This is in spite of a report by Kent and Medway Clinical Commissioning Group on 20 January that stated that there were ‘too many people housed in each block to allow adequate social distancing and to prevent the risk of spread of infection’, and in spite of, to quote May Bulman’s report, ‘an assessment of the site by the government’s immigration watchdog last month [which] found that opening multi-occupancy dormitory-style accommodation at Napier had not complied with official health and safety guidance and that a large-scale outbreak had been “virtually inevitable.”’  A representative of the Kent Refugee Action Network is quoted as saying that it is ‘horrific’ that vulnerable asylum seekers are being ‘packed into entirely inappropriate communal living situations against the advice of PHE [Public Health England].’  Given their vulnerability, it is almost certain that some of the asylum-seekers will have died as a result of contracting Covid at the Barracks.  I haven’t been able to establish how many, but it is all too painfully obvious that the Home Office wouldn’t care how many, and assumes that the rest of us won’t care either.

Outlaw the democratic right to protest; arrest those who are charged with monitoring police behaviour; demonise and ‘other’ particular groups in society who are too weak and vulnerable to resist; create a climate in which the general population doesn’t care what happens to those who are being demonised.  That is the line at the end of which, if people allow it to be built, the concentration camps lie in wait.**


** https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/uknews/home-office-presenting-opinion-as-fact-on-immigration-issues-lawyers-warn/ar-BB1f5ObO

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/napier-barracks-asylum-seekers-home-office-covid-b1824899.html


* https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/police-bill-protest-arrest-liberty-b1826590.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘A perception more than a reality’?

Perception or reality?

April 1st

So March slips seamlessly into April and the news gets its annual injection of  quirkiness.  One story that caught my attention was the one about a bronze statue of Dominic Cummings, designed by a Scandanavian sculptor called Olof Prial, that is to be erected outside the opticians in Barnard’s Castle where Cummings went to test his eyes.  Another was the story about a ten-person government commission – the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities  – that is said to have reported after the better part of a year that, where race is concerned, the UK ‘should be regarded as a model for other white-majority countries’ because, according to its chair, Tony Sewell, while there is ‘anecdotal evidence of racism’ in UK, the commission could find no ‘evidence of actual institutional racism’.   People who spent any time at all opposing apartheid in South Africa will have been mightily relieved to discover that they have came to the right place. Provided, of course, that they haven’t noticed today’s date.

Nobody should be particularly surprised at the findings of the Commission’s 258 page report, which was apparently completed several months ago (and which, beyond the Foreword and Introduction, I have to confess to not having read in its entirety).  Boris Johnson signalled its outcome very clearly when he set it up.  Its job, he said, would be to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.’   As long as we ‘change the narrative’ and stop people feeling they are victimised and discriminated against, all will be well and victimisation and discrimination will disappear out of the window.  Johnson apparently made sure of the desired outcome of the review by getting Munira Mirza, the Director of the No 10 Policy Unit who is on record as saying that institutional racism is ‘a perception more than a reality’, to hand-pick the members of the Commission.   Perhaps the otherwise unaccountable delay in the report’s publication until April Fool’s Eve can be attributed to the same penchant for a jolly jape as Johnson’s racist references to, among other people, ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘water-melon smiles’.

We cannot, surely, be expected to believe that the arrival on the scene of an overtly racist prime minister will have miraculously purged our society of the institutional racism identified by so many previous reports.  Racism is now, Sewell’s Foreword suggests, just an unpleasant historical memory: ‘For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.’  This miraculous change must have happened in the four years since David Lammy produced his 2017 Independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.*

Lammy’s review revealed that young black people were nine times more likely to be locked up in England and Wales than their white peers, while the proportion of British and minority ethnic (BAME) youth prisoners rose from 25% to 41% in the ten years between 2006 and 2016.   Perhaps even more startling in view of what one knows about the penal system in the USA is the fact that while the 13% of the US population who are black accounted for a striking 35% of the prison population in that country, here the 3% of our population who are black accounted for 12% of the prison population, proportionally almost double the US’s notorious black imprisonment prison rate.   Lammy’s 2017 figures showed that for every 100 white men convicted of public order offences here there were 494 BAME convictions.   For every 100 white men convicted, the equivalent BAME conviction figures for criminal damage and arson, possession of weapons, drug offences, theft, violence against the person and sexual offences were 156, 144, 127, 121, 119 and 118 respectively.  In every instance the number of black men convicted was, proportionately, significantly higher than the number of white men.  

The Home Office’s own figures show that In 2018/2019 Black people were more than five times as likely to have force used against them by police as White people, and were subject to the use of Tasers at almost eight times the rate of White people.** Other figures show that there are twice as many BAME deaths in custody as a result of restraint, and twice as many involving the use of force, as for other groups.  So much for institutional racism being ‘a perception more than a reality’ – unless, of course, that miraculous transformation has indeed come about in a couple of years.  The outrage with which the Review report has been greeted by members of the BAME community would suggest that not to be the case.

As seems now to be the Downing Street custom, snippets of the report were allowed to leak out in advance.  One of the extracts that has occasioned the greatest consternation is one that manages to find a silver lining to the grotesque history of slavery: ‘There is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain (sic).’  This cultural transformation is clearly seen as a positive benefit.   Crudely put, the route of the perceived ‘progress’ appears to boil down to: lift the African out of the heart of darkness in Africa, transport him across the Atlantic and subject him to the purifying fire of slavery, and, hey presto! you have your ‘re-modelled  African/Britain’, whatever that may be.   Didn’t any of the ten members of the commission pause even for a moment to call out the assumption of racial superiority underlying this bizarre attribution of a ‘silver lining’ to slavery?  In what respect, precisely, is the ‘re-modelled African’, now apparently fit to live in Britain, superior to his antecedents from, say, the empires of Songhai or Mali in West Africa?  

When Diane Abbott, the former shadow Home Secretary, heard that Munira Mirza was going to be involved in selecting the commissioners, she is reported as having said: ‘A new race equalities commission led by Munira Mirza is dead on arrival. She has never believed in institutional racism.’  Boris Johnson’s supposedly ‘independent’ Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities seems by all account to have done its very best to do the job he wanted it to do. It has tried to ‘change the narrative so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination’. But I suspect that Johnson is already wishing that the report really had been ‘dead on arrival.’  It is very much alive and kicking and has clearly already succeeded in gravely exacerbating a great many people’s sense of victimisation and discrimination. Even on April Fools Day it is difficult to believe that Boris Johnson, even Boris Johnson, could manage to shoot himself in the foot quite so crassly.


* https://www.theguardian.com/law/2017/sep/08/racial-bias-uk-criminal-justice-david-lammy

**  https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-use-of-force-statistics-england-and-wales-april-2018-to-march-2019

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Universities and Food-banks

2nd February

Over the course of the last many months of WordPress blog entries, I’ve noted on more than one occasion how pleased I am not still to be part of a senior team trying to manage a university during a global pandemic.  The arrival of a pandemic like Covid-19 might have been manageable for universities in the idealistic decades of their post-war expansion, when Higher Education was seen as a largely unquestioned social good and its roles both as a ‘critic and conscience’ in an increasingly secularized society, and as the provider of much of the intellectual leadership behind commercially beneficial research were recognized.    Before the days of the 1985 Jarratt Report’s study of efficiencies in Higher Education and the Boston Consulting Group’s ‘Cash Cows’ and ‘Dogs’, before the growth of populist anti-intellectualism, and long before Michael Gove told us we were ‘tired of experts’, many governments around the world recognized the intellectual, social and commercial value of university education and were prepared to pay for it via student grants and university subsidies. 

The very rapid expansion of Higher Education obviously posed challenges for a model based on an enthusiastic recognition by government of the extent of the benefits universities and their graduates bring to society.  From the 1980s onwards, with the Jarratt Report being a key moment, the weighting of the perceived benefits changed and the emphasis shifted to the benefits of Higher Education to the individual, rather than to society as a whole.  This has resulted in a steady decline in government subsidy to universities and grants to students; a rapid commodification of education; a reification of students as ‘products’; and an instrumentalist fetishisation of ‘impact’ as the measurable benefit of research.   The withdrawal of public funding for all but the most resource-intensive science-based subjects resulted in what amounted for many universities to privatization by stealth, which means that many now have to rely almost entirely on student fees to cover their costs.   Given that there is a ceiling to the fees universities are allowed to charge ‘home’ students, the mass recruitment of international students was an obvious recourse and, in a competitive market economy, many universities have been charging as much for their courses as the market will bear.   There may well be some additional cost to teaching international students who are often not English first- language speakers and often come to the UK with very different learning styles from ‘home’ students, but that additional cost is pretty marginal, and the ethics of charging international students significantly higher fees for exactly the same courses as are offered to ‘home’ students are highly questionable.

Our universities seem to me now to be finding themselves in an impossible position in times of Covid-19 crisis, and are coming in for increasingly virulent criticism from students, parents, the media and the wider public.  In this context it seemed important to explore very briefly how the universities reached this point – oversimplified and crude as the account I have given is – if only because it throws some light on the Pontius Pilate-like extent to which, regardless of universities’ major contribution to society, government now washes its hands of its responsibility for our universities and, through them, their students.  That responsibility would have been painfully obvious to everybody in the 1960s and 1970s.  The very poor university experience being offered to ‘home’ students has been the subject of quite extensive media coverage over the past year; the plight of international students has received much less coverage here, although one suspects that it has featured prominently enough in the media in the students’ home countries to act as a significant deterrent to future international recruitment.

The photograph above, published three days ago, is of an amorphous queue of destitute international students, many of them postgraduate students from India, waiting in line for handouts of food parcels from a food-bank.   The accompanying Channel 4 news report revealed that the food-bank in question, whose location remained discreetly undisclosed, now caters solely for students and succeeds in providing food for 1,700 of them every week.  As someone who spent his working life in universities I found the photograph and accompanying report deeply disturbing.   The students cannot afford to buy food, partly because the pandemic has resulted in the disappearance of the 20 hours per week part-times jobs many would have relied on.   The ones who were interviewed said that they didn’t want to let parents, who had in most cases made enormous sacrifices to enable them to come to the UK, know that they were struggling.  They were also very reluctant to make approaches to their university as they were worried, in the context of the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’, that that could lead to their visas being withdrawn.  It is obviously common knowledge that the Home Office will have done its best to find reasons stop them coming to UK in the first place, and it is not an unreasonable assumption that it will be looking for reasons to deport them.   In the meantime, it was clear that the universities had proved themselves incapable of communicating with the students who were being interviewed to let them know what student welfare provisions, however limited, were available to them. 

The universities remain reliant on student fees.  Their overheads will remain largely the same.  There will not be many opportunities to furlough staff, as academic staff are having to come to terms with remote teaching, and marking loads will stay the same, while most support staff in roles that haven’t been outsourced will still be needed.  Some universities will have significant reserves to draw on, but many don’t.  As I have said, I do not envy university managers their role in current circumstances.  But they should, at least, be able to communicate with their students a great deal better than some of them appear to be doing, and they need to find some way of helping the very many international students who find themselves having to queue at the food-banks if they want to have something to eat.  It isn’t as if this situation is new.  The BBC was already reporting on 29th July last year that up to 600 international students a week were queuing round the block on Tuesdays and Saturdays at the Newham Community Projects base in East Ham to receive food from volunteers.  Charging international students very high fees for the privilege of registering, and then leaving them to be fed by food-banks is not a good look for our universities.

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: 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?