From David Maughan Brown in York: “Breaking Point”?

Brexit Poster

February 15th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


1


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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: U-turns.

May 21st

The BBC’s ‘Today’ programme this morning featured an interview with Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee who is currently working as a cleaner in an NHS hospital.  Mr Akkad posted a very brief but powerful video on Twitter yesterday in which directly, and with barely suppressed emotion, he addressed Boris Johnson asking him to reconsider the government’s policy of paying compensation for the deaths of doctors and nurses who have died as a result of Covid-19 in the service of the NHS, and guaranteeing their bereaved families the right to remain in UK after their deaths, but not treating cleaners, porters and others working for the NHS who have died of the same disease in the same way.   The video went viral more or less instantly, was seen by millions of viewers, received numerous ‘likes’, and within a few hours the Government had performed a spectacular U-turn.

At Prime Minister’s Question time yesterday Boris Johnson, while once again thanking the two nurses who ‘saved my life’ while he was in ICU, again refused to reconsider his government’s policy of charging all non-British NHS workers a £400 per family member surcharge for using the NHS, shortly to be raised to £624 per person.  You read that right.  Our Home Secretary Priti Patel, she of the immutably fixed supercilious sneer, has taken on the role of ensuring a hostile environment for all immigrants and asylum seekers with unseemly relish, and was proposing to charge foreign nationals working in the NHS £624 per person every year, on top of their income tax, for the privilege of risking, and in all too many cases losing, their lives to keep the rest of us healthy.  Johnson justified retaining the surcharge on the basis that the NHS is ‘a national institution, it needs funding and those contributions actually help us to raise about £900m, and it’s very difficult in the current circumstances to find alternative sources.’

This was a serious miscalculation on Boris’s part.  It was a literal miscalculation in that his perennial laziness and lack of preparation led him to a tenfold exaggeration of the amount raised by the NHS surcharge: the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that the figure is, in fact; around £90m.  But one stopped expecting Boris to tell the truth long ago.  Potentially more significant a miscalculation was Boris’s misreading of his own backbenchers.   When Tory backbenchers start muttering about a surtax on immigrants being ‘unconscionable’ you know that it must be an electoral liability. To do them justice it is possible that some of them may also appreciate just how cynical and xenophobic the surtax it is.   Whatever the case, they clearly put enough pressure on Boris for him to perform the daddy of all screeching, tyre-burning, hand-brake U-turns 24 hours later.  That is two in two days, and will be even more embarrassing for the Tory grandees than Boris’s abject performances in parliament.

I have no doubt that the first U-turn, with regard to the bereavement compensation, was a just a typically cynical and unprincipled pandering to what Twitter was showing to be a feeling of injustice among the electorate.  The omission of NHS porters, cleaners and security guards from the scheme could conceivably just have been an oversight in the first place.  While doctors and nurses were busy saving his life, Boris probably didn’t even register the cleaners cleaning up around him or the porters wheeling the patients in and out of the ICU.  They would just have been part of the furniture.  Why would a former Captain of School at Eton (they don’t stoop to having mere head boys), particularly one born to be Prime Minister, deign to notice cleaners and porters?  The second U-turn seems much more significant, and not just because it was the second in two days.  It suggests to me that already, in spite of his landslide election victory, Boris’s position as political lord of all he surveys is becoming shaky.  The second U-turn was not, I suspect, a typically opportunistic maneuver on his part, it was almost certainly forced on him.  For all the blaming of ‘the Science’ for how badly wrong the ‘battle’ against Covid-19 has gone, there must be influential members of the Conservative Party who appreciate that after more than 36,000 deaths (according to the official statistics, and over 50,000 more realistically) Boris’s amiable political persona as the bouncily energetic crowd-pleaser who loves to hear himself quoting Latin and can’t be bothered to brush his hair has reached its sell-by date.