From David Maughan Brown in York: National embarrassment

August 21st

There is a limit to the extent to which a governing party can scrape the bottom of the electoral barrel to win votes by pandering to the worst instincts of its electorate without ultimately embarrassing itself.   Having chosen to align themselves with Farage and UKIP in sneaking a marginal win in the Brexit referendum via unashamed displays of xenophobia, and then having rendered UKIP obsolete by adopting its policies and creating the most hostile of environments towards asylum seekers and refugees, the Tories under Johnson and Patel have painted themselves into a corner.   While the immorality and short-sightedness of xenophobia can pass without too much notice in the normal course of events,  people are liable to sit up and take notice when it comes to prime-time television footage of desperate people clinging to the fuselages of aircraft before plunging to their deaths, or parents despairing enough to pass their babies to unknown soldiers over barbed wire fences because they think that getting out of Afghanistan somehow, even without them, is their children’s only hope for the future. 

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are, of course, way beyond being able to be embarrassed by anything, no matter how contemptible, but there are clearly a significant number of more humane and intelligent Tory politicians – which by definition excludes anyone in the cabinet – who still have the capacity to feel deeply ashamed of what they are seeing on the news, which they must recognise they are in some measure responsible for.

Over the course of the past 20 years many thousands of Afghans will have condemned themselves to outer darkness in the eyes of the Taliban, with summary execution being the most direct route to that darkness, as the penalty for having worked with our armed forces, with Western governments, and with charities funded from Western countries.  The panicked crowds on the runways at Kabul airport and trying to get to the airport testify to the tens of thousands of Afghans who are now living in fear of their lives.  And our xenophobic government’s response to the chaos and crisis is graciously to offer to accept ‘up to’ (and we know from the practical  outcome of the Dubs Amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act what ‘up to’ means)  5000 Afghans under the Afghanistan citizen’s resettlement scheme over the coming year with ‘up to’ another 15,000 accepted over the following four years.   Boris Johnson tells us: “I am proud that the UK has been able to put in place this route to help them and their families live safely in the UK.”[1]

The response to this on the part of our more humane members of parliament was predictable, with Labour MP Chris Bryant posing the most trenchant question to the Prime Minister: ‘What are the 15,000 meant to do?  Hang around and wait until they have been executed?’[2]  But the vehement response to Johnson’s apparent lack of any vestige of understanding about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan was by no means confined to the parliamentary opposition.  Theresa May said, ‘We boast about Global Britain’, and asked: ‘But where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?’ Tory MP David Davis said that the UK should be prepared to take in more than 50,000 Afghans over the next few months if necessary and added a statement of what to anyone watching their televisions over the past few days will have been the bleeding obvious: ‘And I mean right now, in the short term.  This will be resolved, one way or another, within the next few months.’  According to Adam Forrest in The Independent, Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chair of the Defence Committee said ‘the government should be aiming to accept “at least” tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in the short term’: ‘The commitment to resettle a mere 5,000 refugees, from a population of 38 million Afghans, falls hopelessly short – a drop in the ocean given the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis.’

All of which presents a bit of a dilemma to a government which owes its majority to the cultivation and reinforcement of racism and xenophobia on the part of a large enough section of the electorate to get them into power.  Have those voters been watching their televisions? Do they really have no sympathy whatever for the women so desperate about the future of their children that they are prepared to hand them over to unknown British soldiers for safe-keeping?  Around 50% of our electorate are women:  don’t those women care in the least about what is likely to happen to the women of Afghanistan now that the Taliban has regained power?

Priti Patel’s and Boris Johnson’s answer to the question is clear.  The appalling way they have treated ‘illegal’ refugees and asylum seekers by, among other things, incarcerating them in condemned Covid-19-infested army barracks in Kent hasn’t lost them any votes in the shires.   Looking to send asylum seekers to be “processed” in Rwanda or on Ascension Island doesn’t seem to have gone down badly either.   So Priti Patel, the darling of those shires, claims that the UK cannot accommodate 20,000 refugees “all in one go”.[3]  So what, apart from the arrival of Priti Patel and Boris Johnson on the scene, has happened to prevent tens of thousands of refugees from being accommodated by UK “all in one go”, as happened in 1972 when 28,000 asylum seekers from Uganda, who were fleeing from Idi Amin as Afghans are currently fleeing from the Taliban, were accommodated by UK “all in one go”?  Priti Patel herself was, of course, one of the fortunate 28,000.  But, heigh ho, what is a ladder for, apart from being something to be pulled up behind one?


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/17/uk-to-take-20000-afghan-refugees-over-five-years-under-resettlement-plan

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/afghanistan-refugees-uk-settlement-scheme-b1904242.html

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-patel-afghan-refugees-settlement-b1904414.html

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 Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Vaccines and anti-vaxers

November 11.  The problem with patrician mavericks like Lord Sumption is that they give intellectual cover for much less fastidious figures.

A week after his Cambridge Freshfields Lecture, Nigel Farage and Richard Tice crawled out of the decaying wreckage of the Brexit Party and announced the creation of ‘Reform UK’ dedicated to the libertarian rejection of the Government’s lockdown policy. 

They wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “It’s time to end the political consensus that there is no alternative to shutting people up in their homes.  The institutions and polices that require change are formidable, and once gain we will have to take on powerful vested interests… We are showing the courage needed to take on consensus thinking and vested interests.”*

As with Sumption and the Great Barrington Declaration that they support, there is a wholesale rejection of the authority of political and medical elites.

In terms of the lockdown, this may no longer be important.  With this week’s announcement of an effective vaccine, the focus of the argument is shifting to the issue of take-up.  Already the anti-vaxxers are attacking the alleged consensus thinking – that the medical establishment is united in regarding the Pfizer results as a major breakthrough even though regulatory approval has not yet been given – and the ‘vested interests’ behind it – particularly big pharma and Bill Gates.**

A succession of studies during the pandemic have described the scale of the anti-vax movement and the strength of its online presence (see also posts on July 7, July 15, August 11).  Politico reports a Eurobarometer survey stating that nearly half of Europeans believe that vaccines are a danger to health.***  Last month The Lancet carried a story based on a study made by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate.  It found that one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated, and a similar proportion were undecided.  Traffic on social media was growing.  Globally, 31 million people followed anti-vaccine groups on Facebook and 17 million were subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube.****  A more parochial investigation of Totness published this week in the Guardian, found a thriving Facebook community opposed to face masks, lockdown, and vaccination.*****

It might be argued that such surveys do not matter.  Despite the Pfizer breakthrough, there is no vaccine available today, no real-life decision to make.  Opinion is bound to change once there is a call from the GP surgery.  The question is what the take-up will then be, given that the online anti-vax movement is evidently capable to responding negatively to any claimed medical advance.  It needs to be somewhere near 95% fully to eradicate the virus.

The issue constitutes an interesting case history for the capacity of digital communication to shape private behaviour.  There is a tendency in the critical literature to assume that networked messages have a direct effect on the actions of those who receive them.  That is what power means. The fertility of the conspiracies, the scale of the readership and of the investment in them by advertisers, lead to the expectation that consumers will do things they otherwise would not do if they relied solely on more traditional forms of communication.

In this instance the online-messaging will compete with conventional newspaper, radio and television outlets which at least in Britain are united in their support of the scientific breakthrough, even though some opponents are finding their way onto chat shows.  For all the damage caused to the standing of politicians and administrators during the pandemic, medical researchers retain authority.  The roll-out of the vaccine will start with care-home residents, who are unlikely to be spending their enclosed days following Facebook conspiracy theories, and with eighty-year-olds in the community who will not share the online-habits of eighteen year-olds. Then there are the opinions of close friends and relatives whose views you respect and whose respect you do not want to lose. 

I dare not contemplate the response were I to tell my children that I have decided to let nature take its course.

*https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/11/01/relaunching-brexit-party-fight-cruel-unnecessary-lockdown/

**https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/10/coronavirus-anti-vaxxers-seek-to-discredit-pfizers-vaccine?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

***https://www.politico.eu/article/how-populists-spread-vaccine-fear/

****https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landig/article/PIIS2589-7500(20)30227-2/fulltext

*****https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/nov/11/totnes-covid-concerns-reflect-uk-wide-rise-in-conspiracy-theories?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

From David Maughan Brown in York: Lockdown blood-pressure

June 14th

For many years in Pietermaritzburg I had my blood-pressure measured more or less every week prior to my having two pints of blood removed so that the plasma could be extracted for the manufacture of an anti-rabies vaccine and the red corpuscles returned to one or other of my arms, both of which still look as if I’ve been mainlining all my life.  My parents had been attacked by a rabid dog in Sierra Leone before I was born; without an effective vaccine I wouldn’t have been born; so it was a kind of pay-back.   Through all the years of apartheid Special Branch harassment, post-apartheid student protests, and everything else South Africa threw at us, my blood pressure, as tested on Monday afternoons, never varied an iota: 100 over 70.  In a much more relaxed retirement, weighing less, and with none of the usual risk factors, my blood-pressure has rocketed over the past two or three months to the point where  I am having to take medication to bring it down from the stratosphere.  Lockdown itself isn’t stressful, so the only possible cause I can come up with is the cack-handed way Covid-19 has been handled and, in particular, the blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy, and the blindingly obvious lack of logic of our ‘leaders’.

When it comes to the dishonesty, where does one start?  Given that I can’t spare the time to write ten pages, perhaps I should restrict myself to the first two blood-pressure-raising examples that to come to mind.  Anyone who has been paying any attention knows that the ‘official’ statistic for the death toll from Covid-19 that the government trots out every day, and the BBC dutifully repeats, having avidly listened with its virtual head cocked to one side like the dog in the His Master’s Voice trademark, is a deliberate lie.  It is the figure only for the number who have died after being tested and, as we know, Hancock and company were culpably slow in getting adequate testing up and running.  Even leaving aside the figure for excess deaths, they should be adding in the figures for those who hadn’t been tested but for whom coronavirus had been cited as a cause for their death on their death-certificates.  Meanwhile Matt Hancock keeps adamantly insisting that he ‘threw a protective ring around the care-homes.’   If he did throw his metaphorical protective ring around the care-homes, he must have smeared it with metaphorical novichok first.  How otherwise can one account for a ‘protective ring’ that results in the deaths of more than 16,000 of those it is supposed to be protecting?  Every time I hear another person grieving about a lost parent or grandparent who died in a care-home, that lie intrudes again.

Where hypocrisy is concerned, government endorsement of Cummings’ ‘perfectly understandable’ eye-test comes to mind, but today’s particular gem is ventriloquist-dummy Johnson, no doubt also listening avidly to his master Cummings’ voice, earnestly telling the world that he and Priti Patel won’t put up with ‘racist thuggery’.   What does he think he and his kindred spirit, Nigel Farage, have been doing for the past three years except deliberately flaming the virulent combination of English Nationalism, xenophobia and racist thuggery which took them to their marginal referendum result, then onward and downward to Boris’s success in the General Election, and has now contributed to the violence exercised against the Black Lives Matter protesters and the police?

Where logic is concerned, nobody appears to have even tried to explain the logic whereby one grandparent living by himself or herself can safely form a “bubble” with a family, but, if both are still alive, neither – let alone both – are legally permitted to immerse themselves in the very same ‘bubble’, irrespective of how rigorously they have been self-isolating up to now.   But the supreme illogicality, particularly for a government seemingly agonized over the economy, lies with the recently imposed quarantine on selected people entering the country.  Leaving the USA, Brazil and Sweden aside, almost every single one of the other 200+ countries in the world has handled Covid-19 better than our government, and has a population less likely than ours to carrying the infection as a consequence.  So our government ‘quarantines’ people who are less likely to be infected than the people they will encounter in UK, first by telling them to self-isolate for 14 days, and then by letting them wander off to catch public transport to whatever address they have decided to give, wherever they please in the country, on condition that they promise, ‘scout’s honour’, to be good.  Surely people don’t need Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, to tell them how stupid that is?  There are however, as one would expect, some sheer genius exceptions.  One of the many categories selected for exclusion from the ‘quarantine’ is long-distance lorry-drivers.  This may be sensible from an economic point of view but, given that almost all the countries in Europe have far fewer Covid-19 infections than the UK, it is very peculiar, to say the least, from the perspective of disease control.   Without wishing to impugn the behaviour of long-distance truck drivers, it is worth noting that the spread of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa has been tracked down the routes used by the long-haul truckers.

There is, however, a possible blood-pressure lowering interpretation of this otherwise absurdly illogical ‘quarantine’.   Perhaps our government, instinctively inclined to avoid being upfront about anything at all, for all the supposed ‘transparency’ of the daily Downing Street news conference, has undergone a radical, road-to-Damascus-type conversion.   Perhaps it has relinquished the comfort of its ‘hostile environment’, recanted on its implicit endorsement of Johnson’s ‘piccanninnies’, ‘watermelon smiles’ and comparison of women in burkas to ‘letterboxes’, regretted its racist handling of the Windrush scandal and decided it really likes foreigners after all.   Perhaps it really likes them so much, in fact, that it wants to protect the ones who are forgiving enough to visit our country from the possibility of being infected by the rest of us.  Two foreigners did, after all, save Boris’s life – perhaps this is his pay-back.  Our government couldn’t, of course, be upfront about so radical a conversion, as that would instantly lose them every last shred of their credibility with their Trumpian ‘base’.  Perhaps – but, then again, perhaps not.