From David Maughan Brown in York: Hulk or Home Office?

October 2nd

What is being contemplated with regard to asylum-seekers unwise enough to think that England’s green and pleasant land might be a desirable destination is becoming simultaneously clearer, murkier, and much darker.   It seems from a couple of interviews in yesterday’s edition of the BBC’s Today programme and a report in the Guardian that it isn’t just our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who would really, really, really like to find a way of getting rid of pesky asylum-seekers by transporting them to Ascension Island (or, one gathers, St Helena) in the South Atlantic, but the Cabinet Office and “Downing Street” as a whole (i.e. Dominic Cummings with Boris Johnson in tow).  There is a move afoot, according to a Guardian source, to “radically beef-up the hostile environment” in 2021 as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end.  The Windrush disgrace and our government’s declared intention to ignore international law where Brexit is concerned have apparently not done enough damage to our increasingly wafer-thin international reputation.

A smorgasbord of options other than rocky islands in the South Atlantic has apparently been put before civil servants to consider in a despairing effort to keep asylum-seekers off our sceptred isle. The options are said to include Morocco, Moldova, Papua New Guinea (only twice as far away as Ascension Island), disused oil-rigs, and ships anchored off-shore.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  The cunning wheeze of using disused ships to house prisoners was conceived in the 18th century, as anyone who has read Great Expectations and made the acquaintance of the escaped convict Abel Magwitch will know.   Permanently moored prison ships, known as ‘hulks’, were never one of the hallmarks of a civilized society and their use was discontinued in 1856 because they were regarded as inhumane.   But the hallmark of Conservative parties is, of course, to conserve the past.

Adam Holloway, very Conservative MP for Gravesham in Kent, made it clear when interviewed by the Today programme that Patel’s and Downing Street’s object in considering these literally outlandish schemes is to provide ‘some sort of deterrent’ to discourage asylum-seekers from wanting to come to the UK.   Putting them in the stocks or giving them public floggings for having the temerity to think that England might be a good place to seek refuge from persecution and torture might seem a bit too strong by way of a deterrent for all but the retired colonels in the shires.  So what about a nice “detention centre” in the sunshine of Morocco, for example?  You wouldn’t need to go back historically as far as the hulks, the archives will be sure to have kept the blue-prints for our Anglo-Boer war concentration camps.  If you are planning to outsource your interviews with asylum-seekers anyway, you could outsource them to locals in Morocco – think how much cheaper that would be.  If you are aiming at the 99% failure rate of the much lamented “fast-track” process, it wouldn’t matter if the locals couldn’t speak the asylum-seekers’ language and didn’t know anything about asylum law – it would be easy enough to make sure UK journalists couldn’t get anywhere near the concentration camps.  It’s been done before. Of course, even if you were to intercept the asylum-seekers in the English Channel before they arrived in England, you would need to break international asylum laws by taking them ashore to an airport in order to deport them to Morocco, or wherever else, without assessing their claims first, but we are soon going to be an independent sovereign state, so, once again, to hell with international law.

I find myself wondering why I find all this so deeply depressing.   It isn’t so much because of its callous inhumanity towards people so desperate to find a home here, and in some instances join family here, that they are prepared to put to sea in inflatable swimming pools.  Xenophobia and inhumanity is what one has long come to expect of the Conservative party.  It isn’t so much the utterly absurd and impractical options that have been put forward by Patel and “Downing Street” more generally for serious consideration by civil servants.  That is entirely in line with the wholly fanciful, and ultimately delusional, construction of a United Kingdom better off economically and politically outside the European Union – the Conradian “fixed idea” that obsesses the Brexiteers. What is probably the most depressing aspect of this whole sorry business is the extent to which it lays bare the apparently irredeemable shortsightedness of our politics.   The asylum-seekers who are taking to small boats and enriching the people smugglers are only doing so because more conventional ways of getting here are closed off to them.   They are showing themselves to be courageous, determined and resilient.  Most of them happen to be young; many have skills that are needed here.  I’ve made the point before, but it seems particularly pertinent here.  Who, precisely, do Johnson, Patel and rest think is going to be driving our economy in 30 years time as our population growth declines and our current workforce grows old?  Who, for that matter, will be left to look after them in their old age once their fatal combination of xenophobia and negligence has decimated our Health and Care sectors?  Better surely to offer genuine, which means competently assessed, asylum-seekers a home rather than consigning them to concentration camps in the desert or the modern equivalent of the hulks.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Send them Home Office

September 30th

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Unhomely Office

September 26th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: “Completely potty”

August 8th

A cacophony of clucking reverberates around our shores as another flock of Brexit chickens, not yet chlorinated, comes home to roost.   These particular metaphorical chickens have taken on the guise of asylum seekers who are desperate enough to pay up to £3000 each to people-smugglers to allow themselves to be put on overcrowded and unseaworthy small boats, pointed towards these shores, and pushed out into the English Channel.  Taking advantage of the calm weather, they are arriving in our territorial waters in increasing numbers.   Many of them will be fleeing the violence in countries like Syria and Somalia, many of them will have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, their friends, and members of their own families, killed.  Some will be fleeing persecution, torture and death threats.   Some are unaccompanied children.  They will all have made their hazardous and unwelcomed way across Europe and will be traumatised enough to think that, after all they have been through, it is worth the risk to try to make it across the last twenty or thirty miles of open water to what they hope will be a safe haven where some of them already have friends and family.

We should be pleased that the UK is still seen around the world as the kind of country it is worth undergoing daunting hardship and perilous journeys to try to get to.   After five more years of this government it almost certainly won’t be.  Instead of meeting trauma, courage and resilience with compassion and understanding, our national figurehead where such matters are concerned, the execrable Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Office, she of the permanent smirk, spews her xenophobic venom over Twitter and threatens to get the Royal Navy to sort them out.  A Ministry of Defence ‘source’, according to the Independent, says the idea of using the navy is “completely potty” and elaborates as follows: “We don’t resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings.  It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat in rubber dinghies in the Channel.”

In essence, Patel’s problem is that ‘Taking Back Control’ and a national ‘Independence’ from anybody else’s rules was always a chimera.  Just as operating on World Trade Organisation terms means exactly what it says on the tin – being bound by regulations we don’t determine ourselves – so the ‘law of the sea’ dictates that people in small boats in UK territorial waters have to be rescued and taken to land in UK.   However much a furious Patel might feel inclined to sink the rubber dinghies, she can’t order the Navy even to ‘turn them back’.  It isn’t possible to disregard internationally agreed rules without making one’s country a ‘world-beating’ international pariah with whom nobody would want to have any dealings.   Genuine control would involve allowing the migrants to travel here safely, processing their asylum claims rapidly and humanely (which would require a different Home Office), welcoming those entitled to asylum and returning those we aren’t convinced by to the country of first entry to Europe to try to persuade that country to accept them.

Patel and her Brexiteer buddies are also going to sort France out, and make sure that France takes seriously its responsibility for stopping the boats leaving its shores, or turning them back before they leave French territorial waters.  They had better remember who won the Battle of Agincourt.   But if the Brexiteers were capable of coherent thought instead of perpetually playing to their fellow frothing-loon media supporters they might conceivably ask themselves two questions.  First, why on earth should France bother?  Once the transition period is over, the French would be entirely justified in feeling insulted, looked down on and patronised enough by the Brexiteers to stop spending what must be very extensive resources on trying to prevent migrants from making the crossing.  Indeed, it would be sensible, and almost certainly cheaper, to provide the migrants with the boats and escort them into British territorial waters themselves, with a ‘You wanted to leave the EU and “take control of immigration”, so it’s over to you.’  Literally ‘over to you’.

The other, longer term, question they should be asking themselves – although it seems way beyond their intellectual capacity and the very limited horizon of the immediate self-interest on which their attention is exclusively focussed – is who on earth do they think is in a decade or two going to be staffing the NHS, looking after their parents, waiting on the tables in their restaurants, and keeping fresh food on their tables, as our birth rate declines and they make sure that what is left of the once United Kingdom is a wholly undesirable place for people from Europe to seek work?   Many of the desperate people in those boats are highly qualified professionals (how else do they get to have the £3000?); they have all shown themselves to be enterprising, courageous and resilient.  They can only, in the longer term, strengthen the shallow gene-pool that has given us the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, to name just two of the leading lights guiding our apology for a government.

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

June 24th

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

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Proportionality.

June 23rd

Three men sitting with their friends enjoying the sunshine on a summer afternoon in Reading last Saturday are suddenly attacked without warning by a man they don’t know, and brutally, and with ruthless efficiency, stabbed to death.  Three of their friends are also stabbed, but their injuries are relatively minor.  It soon becomes apparent that their attacker, who is quickly arrested, is a mentally disturbed asylum seeker from Libya, Khairi Saadallah, who is said to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his involvement in the Libyan civil war.  The identities of the three dead men are released one by one; moving tributes are paid to them by parents and friends, who express their shock and loss; the pupils of James Furlong, by all accounts an inspirational local history teacher, gather to pay their tearful tributes.   Boris Johnson tweets a formulaic statement to the effect that his ‘thoughts are with all those affected by the appalling incident in Reading’; Priti Patel calls the attack ‘senseless’ and elaborates on her boss by adding her heart and prayers to her thoughts which are ‘with all those affected’; the media are full of photographs of people laying bunches of flowers as tributes.   The attack is appalling, the grief of those who knew the men heartfelt and touching.

The sigh of relief that will have gone round Downing Street and the editorial offices and newsrooms of our predominantly right wing media must have been audible across London.  Here, at last, they were back on familiar non-Covid territory:  terrorist attacks, knife-crime, asylum seekers, Muslims, white victims, grief-stricken parents and friends.  After weeks of increasing discomfort as they watched the government they had supported into power demonstrating an embarrassing level of blundering incompetence in its handling of a killer pandemic, they were able to beat the Law and Order drum to their hearts content and, in the process, turn their collective back on the Covid-19 fall out.

I suspect I am not alone in detecting a certain disproportionality in what has been going on here.  A couple of weeks ago Professor Neil Ferguson, whose statistical analysis was instrumental in persuading our Government to institute the lockdown in the first place, said that the belated imposition of that lockdown will have resulted in some 20,000 unnecessary deaths.   A government that, supposedly, religiously ‘follows the science’ needs to take such statements seriously, even if a number of senior scientists have been sufficiently sceptical of their claim to feel the need to set up their own parallel, but independent, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.   That means that in recent weeks roughly seven thousand times as much grief, anguish and loss can be laid at the door of our incompetent government as can be laid at the door of Khairi Saadallah’s murderous killing spree.  Those 20,000 deaths will have been painful, lingering and desperately lonely; the grief of parents, partners and children will have been just as devastating; uncountably more lives have been irreparably disfigured and futures blighted.   The media could obviously never lavish as much attention on those twenty thousand lost lives as it has been able to lavish on the tragic deaths of the three men murdered in the park in Reading on Saturday, and culpability for the 20,000 deaths will never be as easily provable, but we should bear all those other deaths in mind, even as we are appalled by what happened in Reading on Saturday.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Protests against racism

June 7th

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

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

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

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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Bubbles

May 27th

Living in self-isolation under lockdown feels like living in a fragile protective bubble, a somewhat larger version of the huge soap bubbles I watched a busker producing on a still autumn day in New York’s Central Park some years ago.   As long as one is very careful, the bubble won’t burst, and provided the families of those one loves are safe in their own protective bubbles, one can get on with life with reasonable equanimity, even if the constraints become irksome from time to time.   The separate bubbles preclude physical contact but are uplifted by the virtual contact enabled by the likes, appropriately enough, of Zoom.  If we are lucky, they also insulate us to a significant extent from the agonies of the now more than 40,000 people in UK who have died of Covid-19, and the searing grief of the very many more partners, children, parents, and siblings who have been left behind.

One needs to be insulated.  The pain of all those deaths doesn’t bear too much thinking about.  ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality’, as T.S.Eliot said.  The bubble bursts, a partner or a parent gets infected, goes to hospital and ends up in another kind of bubble, this time more like a steel-walled bathysphere that might as well be 10,000 feet under the sea in the Mariana Trench for all the chance anyone has of seeing or touching their loved one.  No visiting, no holding hands, no opportunity for any kind of proper closure, no saying goodbye, and at the end of it all no proper funeral.  Their loved ones have no option but to leave the dying quite literally in the hands of, and to the seemingly infinite, but desperately weary, compassion of the nurses.  Nurses who carry the burden of that love and compassion while, in all too many cases, also carrying the burden of knowing that the government of the people they are caring for, led by Boris Johnson and Priti Patel, would like nothing better than to kick them back to wherever it was they came from to care for our dying here.

It isn’t only the process of dying that enforces separate bubbles under lockdown.  To take just one of what must be hundreds of thousands of examples, there’s a letter in today’s Independent written by a 77 year old man, married for 56 years, whose wife has extreme Alzheimer’s and is in a nursing home.  Whereas he used to visit and sit with her four or five times a week, he hasn’t been able to see her for eight weeks and, being vulnerable himself, has been in total isolation.  He feels ‘neglected, ignored, lonely and cast to one side’ and says that the pressure on mental health must be a major issue for many people like himself.  He concludes his letter by saying: ‘We cannot drive to Durham and choose whether we follow instructions and advice.  Grief, loss and depression are being dismissed by the authorities as unimportant.’   Whatever Boris Johnson may choose to say from behind his podium, we are not all in this together. 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Lockdown Fortnight.

26 May. All of us are looking towards the future, seeking to understand how we can draw lessons from the crisis and build upon them.

This is my modest proposal.

From 2021 there shall be a legally-defined annual Lockdown Fortnight.

The Lockdown Fortnight will fall in the last week of June and the first week of July.  During that period, with exceptions listed below, every household will be required to observe full lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight will have four functions:

  • It will serve as a memorial for the tens of thousands who lost their lives in the 2020 UK pandemic, and for the health workers who risked their lives in supporting the afflicted.  Clapping is not enough;
  • It will serve as an annual reminder that we need to be prepared for the recurrence of a global pandemic. Countries, such as South Korea, that had an active memory of the SARS epidemic, were much better prepared for Covid19 than those without such a memory.  During the lockdown the government will be required to make an annual statement of preparedness;
  • It will create a pollution-free interval to remind us of what we have lost and have a right to regain;
  • It will provide a planned break from the distractions of late modernity in order that individuals recollect themselves and the importance of their immediate social networks (and also do the necessary home repairs that otherwise are left undone across the year).

Because it will be planned and of a fixed duration, the disorder and stress of the current crisis can be largely avoided. Before the Lockdown Fortnight, supplies can be purchased, encounters with family and friends can take place, hairdressers can be visited.  Any other practical difficulties can be borne for only fourteen days.

During Lockdown Fortnight, the only permitted movement will be such as can be conducted on foot, or on a bicycle (powered or otherwise).  The only long-distance travel will be pilgrimages to the shrine of St Cummings the Martyr in Durham (and/or Barnard Castle).

The Lockdown Fortnight will be timed for the period of maximum daylight in Britain. It will incorporate the May Bank Holidays which will be moved forward for this purpose. The school summer half terms will be extended to two weeks and also be moved to this period.

The event is partly based on the Potters Fortnight, which was still functioning when I started work at Keele University.  This was a relic of an industrial holiday, when the potbanks were shut for maintenance, and when, before the 1956 Clean Air Act, it was the only time when you could see across the city.

Exemptions to the Lockdown Fortnight will be:

  • Health and related workers, though A and E business may again decline if the pubs are shut.
  • Hospitality workers serving overseas visitors, who will be welcome to bring their currency to Britain and spend it at otherwise un-crowded hotels and bars (on production of a passport).   This will represent a temporary but annual reminder of what we have lost with Brexit-inspired hostility to all foreigners. Britons travelling abroad will have to leave and return before and after the lockdown.
  • Home-working will be permitted although no household will be allowed more than 10 hours video conferencing a week (5 work, 5 social).  Wherever possible factories should arrange their annual maintenance for this period (see Potters Fortnight above). 
  • Sporting fixtures will be closed (the football season will be over), except Wimbledon on the grounds that it provides televised entertainment for those in lockdown.

The Lockdown Fortnight would be disruptive, but perhaps we have learnt this year that unbroken continuity of event and practice can oppose wisdom and self-knowledge. There may be a small net hit on the national GDP, but everything now is a balance between cost and benefit. See above for the gains.

The regulations will be rigorously policed by the Priti Patel Compassionate Enforcement Agency.

From David Maughn Brown in York: ‘Unskilled workers’

May 18th

As the lockdown, with its social isolation and social distancing, wears on, I am finding my emotions rising to the surface more insistently than usual.   The broadcast media seem at times deliberately to set out to play on those emotions with their extensive and insistent interviews with the bereaved members of the families of those who have been killed by Covid-19.   The cameras linger just that little bit too long on the anguished faces of the partners and children of those who have died as their fortitude wears out and they break down in tears.   One expects families to be grieving after the deaths of loved ones, what I hadn’t anticipated and have found equally moving has been the manifest grief of the managers and staff of care-homes who have been interviewed after the deaths of residents whom they have cared for and clearly loved.  It doesn’t, however, take very long for sympathy to mutate into impotent fury that they should have lost residents they care for very deeply as a result of the extraordinary negligence and incompetence of those responsible for Health and Social Care in this country who allowed elderly residents of care homes to be discharged from hospitals back into those care homes without being tested for Covid-19.

The anger is compounded when those responsible have themselves filmed  ostentatiously ‘clapping for carers’ at 8.00pm on a Thursday evening by way, supposedly, of thanking them for the difficult and dangerous role they are playing during the pandemic, and then walz along to Parliament on Monday morning to support an Immigration Bill which makes it abundantly clear that those same care workers aren’t really wanted or needed in this country.   There are 122,000 vacancies in the care sector at present, not including the gaps left by the 150 or so care workers who have died of Covid-19.   But prohibitive, and wholly unjustified, visa charges are currently in place to deter non-EU foreign care workers from coming now, and as soon as the Brexit transition period comes to an end on December 31st a shiny new salary-threshold based imitation of the Australian points-based immigration system will be put in place to keep them out altogether.   Roughly 25% of care-workers in UK are currently not British and without them, as those directly responsible for managing the homes know all too well, the whole sector will collapse.   But our xenophobic Brexiteer government doesn’t like foreign ‘low-skilled workers’, and one can only presume that the fantasy-land they live in is populated by hundreds of thousands of UK citizens champing at the bit to fill all the existing and prospective vacancies that will ensue.

Michael O’Leary, the boss of Ryanair, interviewed by the BBC this morning, referred to the Government’s bizarre decision to start implementing a two-week quarantine on anyone flying into the UK at this juncture (there’s nothing like waking up to a good idea two months too late) as ‘idiotic and unimplementable’.   Any policy that aims to keep poorly paid health and care workers who aren’t British out of this country, and imagines that our NHS and care sector will survive, is equally idiotic and unimplementable.  The notion that poorly paid nurses and care-workers are ‘unskilled’ is, of course, as stupid as it is offensive.   The equation of salary-level with skill is the kind of stupidity one should probably expect of a government led by an Old Etonian who recently acknowledged that his life has just been saved by the skills of two foreign ‘unskilled workers’, but is apparently blind to the contradiction.  Anyone who wants an example of ‘unskilled workers’ has only to look at Boris (although ‘worker’ is an exaggeration in his case) and Priti Patel, his Home Secretary, who, in spite of their £140k plus salaries, are manifestly lacking the skills needed to do the jobs they have maneuvered themselves into. Of all the sickening features of the whole sorry post-Brexit immigration debate, perhaps the least edifying is having to watch the spectacle of Priti Patel, whose parents immigrated to UK after being expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, frantically pulling the ladder up behind her.