From David Maughan Brown in York: Nessun dorma

Covering over the racist graffiti

July 14th

What kind of bizarre moral universe is one living in when it is professional football managers and players, rather than Prime Ministers and their governments, who find themselves having to provide moral leadership to a country?

All too often in the past the England football team has given the impression of being populated by talented but grossly overpaid and underperforming egotists who were as incapable of behaving themselves off the field as they were unable to subordinate their own egos for the good of the team on it.  England football managers have come and gone in recent years with varying success where results were concerned, but seldom with any great conviction when it came to integrating those multiple egos into a harmonious whole. 

How very different are the present manager and team.   The wholly unflamboyant Gareth Southgate is, besides being a shrewd tactician, a thoughtful and articulate student of the game and an outstanding leader.  He is almost superhuman in his ability to remain calm and in control on the touch-line.  His young team are highly talented and superbly integrated, in every sense of the word.  They play for each other and look after each other, and very clearly respect their manager – to the point where there was never any sign of resentment when they were substituted, even on the one occasion on which Southgate found himself needing to substitute Grealish, who had relatively recently come onto the field as a substitute himself.  The togetherness of the team was very impressive when they were winning, but even more so when they eventually lost in the final.   The footage of the other players and Southgate himself crowding round to hug and console the three players who had missed their penalties was starkly different from the footage, shown often over the past fortnight, of Southgate walking off the field on his own after missing his crucial penalty in the semi-final in 1996.

There was a sickening inevitability about the torrent of racial abuse that was unleashed on social media as a result of the fact that it just happened to be three of the black players in this very diverse team who missed their penalties on this occasion.  But that has also served to demonstrate the off-field strengths of this manager and team and the affection in which they are now held by a great many supporters.  At one level that affection is visibly demonstrated by the sticking of multiple messages of support for Rashford and, by implication the team, on a mural in Manchester that had been defaced with racist abuse, as seen in the photograph.

At another level the strength and self-belief of the team are clear from Tyrone Mings’ preparedness to call out the hypocrisy of our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and by implication our Prime Minister, who both went on record to condemn the racist abuse of the three players, having spectacularly failed to condemn the booing that greeted the team’s ‘taking of the knee’ as soon as football fans were allowed into the stadiums to watch the matches.   Mings, who has been one of the less prominent of England’s players where speaking out against racism is concerned, was commendably forthright: ‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as “Gesture Politics” and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we are campaigning against happens.’

By contrast with the principled stand against racism taken by the England football players, one wonders how it is possible for a ridiculously expensive and pretentious public school like Eton to imbue its pupils with so little self-awareness that Boris Johnson can condemn the ‘appalling’ racist abuse of English players and expect anyone to take him remotely seriously.  This is the same Boris Johnson who talks unapologetically about ‘piccaninnies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’ and Muslim women in burqas looking like ‘letter-boxes’.   The same Boris Johnson who is quite happy to persuade enough of his disgusting Tory MPs to vote for an indefinite prolongation of the cut to Financial Aid to see off those of his more principled Tory colleagues who think that allowing hundreds of thousands of children to die entirely unnecessary deaths isn’t a good idea.  Why would Johnson worry?  None of those children are English, and the vast majority of them of them will be black, many of them no doubt in his view just ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles.’

Who would ever have guessed that a time could come when one can be absolutely certain that England would be a more principled and better country if it were to be led by a team of football players and their manager?  It might also, of course, be a better governed country if it were to be run by a group of brave and idealistic footballers rather than our present bunch of corrupt and self-interested Tory politicians, forever playing to their xenophobic right-wing constituents.  It could hardly be run much worse.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Every country has the government it deserves.’

Who could be nasty enough to deserve this government?

July 8th

Ruth Davidson, the admirable former leader of the Tories in Scotland, went on record this week to warn Boris Johnson that the Tories will be seen as the “nasty party” if they persist with the 0.2% reduction in the UK’s Financial Aid budget.[1]   It seems reasonable enough to consider that being responsible for the unnecessary deaths of a few hundred thousand children around the globe, who would not have died had the £4 billion cut not been made, might be regarded as a symptom of nastiness.  But it isn’t as if it is the only indicator pointing in that direction.  Nor is it just a question of possibly being regarded as nasty at some hypothetical time in the future.   Johnson’s government exudes nastiness from every pore, as exemplified by three of his four senior cabinet ministers.  Dominic Raab merely exudes complacency.

Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, comes across as the sanest and most level-headed of all those in the cabinet, but it is he who insisted on the cut to the Financial Aid budget, despite the clear commitment to maintaining the legally mandated 0.7% of GDP which was promised in the in the Tory election manifesto,  and it is he who is insisting on cutting £20 a week from universal credit payments in the near future.  Rob Merrick tells us in an article in Monday’s Independent that the cut will affect six million households and push an estimated 200,000 more children ‘below the breadline’.[2]

This comes on top of the quaintly termed ‘Covid catch-up tsar’, Sir Kevan Collins, having felt obliged to resign his role because Sunak’s Treasury had only agreed to fund £1.4 billion of the £15 billion required for the schools’ catch-up programme. An utterly derisory £22 for each primary school child in England is going to compensate for an average of 115 days of school missed as a result of the pandemic?   One could be forgiven for concluding that nasty parties don’t much like children, even the children from their own country.  Perhaps that is because it is pensioners, rather than people who still have their lives to live, who tend to vote for the Tories.

Our bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new Secretary for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid, can’t be held responsible for what happened in that department before his over-promoted predecessor, Matt Hancock, was caught on camera following his Prime Minister’s example by having a steamy extra-marital affair, but the sickening cynicism and ingratitude of the award to the NHS of a George Cross for bravery in lieu of a pay-rise greater than an insulting 1% that was announced soon after his take-over of the portfolio is quintessentially Tory and indisputably nasty.   It also requires a certain nastiness to be able blithely to announce that abandoning all Covid restrictions could result in 100,000 new infections every day and (you don’t have long to wait for the inevitable adverb) ‘sadly’ a number of deaths.  But, sadly, ‘We will just have to learn to live with it.’

And then, of course, we have our Home Secretary, Priti Patel, the distilled essence of Tory nastiness.   Further to her exploration variously of Ascension Island, Gibraltar and Rwanda as suitable – i.e. far-away and out of sight – places to transport asylum-seekers to for ‘processing’, Patel has now hit on the wizard wheeze of forcibly turning back the small boats that asylum-seekers, denied access to more conventional routes, have been using to try to cross the English Channel. This practice is known as ‘pushback’ and is, according to the UNHCR (the UN’s Refugee Agency), ‘simply illegal.’  The title of May Bulman’s report on this in Wednesday’s Independent says it all: ‘Illegal, dangerous, morally wrong – campaigners decry Home Office asylum plans.’[3]  Bulman quotes Steve Valdez-Symonds of Amnesty International who says that pushbacks ‘are disdainful of international law and dangerous for the people subjected to them.’  Moreover, contrary to Patel’s misconception, he asserts that: ‘It is people’s right to seek asylum and there is no requirement [in international law] for them to do that in any one country.’  Not that this is likely to cut much ice with Johnson and his obsequious cabinet who have already demonstrated their contempt for international law via their disdain for the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol.

A Local Government Association analysis has concluded that: ‘Significant government funding cuts, soaring demand for child protection services and increasing costs to give children the support they need mean that budgets cannot keep up.’[4]It calculates that there is currently a £1.4 billion budget shortfall if Councils are going to be funded adequately to keep even the present reduced level of children’s services going.  The government argues that this expenditure is not affordable, given the hit our economy has taken from the pandemic.  But that simply doesn’t wash from a government prepared to spaff tens of billions up the wall, to use Johnson’s elegant terminology, on a hopelessly ineffectual Track and Trace system, on PPE and other Covid-related contracts for its chums, and on transporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda.

Joseph de Maistre is credited with the saying that ‘Every country has the government it deserves.’   The only representatives of the UK that come to mind right now who are deserving of a government as irredeemably nasty as this one are those mindless sections of our football crowds xenophobic enough to boo the opposition’s national anthem and to shine laser pointers in the eyes of opposing goal-keepers as they get ready to save penalties.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tories-overseas-aid-nasty-party-davidson-b1877895.html

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/tory-revolt-universal-credit-sunak-b1877929.html

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/channel-pushbacks-asylum-seekers-home-office-priti-patel-b1878961.html

[4] https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/childrens-care-crisis-councils-forced-overspend-almost-ps800m-childrens-social-care

From David Maughan Brown in York: Kindred spirits?

Rwanda Genocide

27th June

So our quintessentially awful Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has abandoned her bright ideas of using first St Helena and then Gibraltar as suitable places to transport asylum-seekers to for ‘processing’, and has now hit on the even brighter idea of trying Rwanda for size.  As a proven bully whose sacking was cravenly ducked by our inimitable prime minister, resulting in the resignation of his independent standards adviser, Patel could hardly have chosen a country better suited to her temperament, and worse suited to the business of welcoming traumatised and desperate asylum-seekers.   There’s nothing like choosing a country best known for genocide as a suitable place for ‘processing’ people a Home Secretary would love to get rid of.

As someone whose treatment of asylum seekers who have managed to reach our shores, notably at the notorious Napier Barracks, demonstrates an open contempt for human rights, Patel will, at best, not have been remotely interested in Human Rights Watch’s views on Rwanda, and, at worst, have felt the attraction of kindred spirits. It isn’t difficult to see why Patel might have felt that attraction:

‘The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front continues to target those perceived as a threat to the government.  Several high-profile critics have been arrested or threatened and authorities regularly fail to conduct credible investigations into cases of enforced disappearances and suspicious deaths of government opponents.  Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities is commonplace, and fair trial standards are routinely flouted in many sensitive political cases, in which security-related charges are often used to prosecute prominent government critics. Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of street children,sex workers and petty vendors occurs widely.’[1]

A Human Rights Watch report on press freedom tells us that ‘In a country where the president coolly gives speeches gloating about the assassination of political opponents, his 2019 warning to online critics that “they are close to the fire” and that one day “the fire will burn them” will likely be taken very seriously.  It is not unusual for Rwandan journalists to go missing or end up dead in mysterious circumstances.’[2]  And those who end up ‘dead in mysterious circumstances’ are not confined within the borders of Rwanda: taking a leaf out of apartheid South Africa’s playbook, Rwandan dissidents and critics, not just in in neighbouring Uganda and Kenya but further afield in South Africa and Europe, have been attacked and murdered.  Neighbouring Uganda is, of course, the country from which Priti Patel’s own family had to flee to seek asylum from Idi Amin in the UK.  They were welcomed; they weren’t immediately sent to Rwanda for ‘processing’.

The almost unbelievable callousness of wanting to send asylum seekers for ‘processing’ all the way to Rwanda, of all places, wasting tax-payers’ money in the process, is sickening.  And it is deeply disheartening to know that we have a government and electorate that might take this insane idea seriously.  But it is even more sickening to hear Patel hypocritically pretending that what this is all about is stopping asylum-seekers from drowning in the English Channel.  It isn’t. Judging by her bullying treatment of asylum-seekers, there is no reason whatever to think that she would give a damn about that.  What this is all too obviously about is a base pandering to the xenophobia of traditional, mainly elderly, Conservative Party supporters in the shires and new Tory converts behind the former ‘red wall’.  

If you don’t want people to die, don’t force desperate asylum-seekers into small boats at the mercy of people-traffickers.  Instead, provide safe routes for them to arrive in the way that Patel’s own family arrived. A report in today’s Independent quotes a Home Office spokesperson going through the necessarily mindless process of defending everything Patel says or does: ‘Our asylum system is broken and we cannot sit idly by while people die attempting to cross the Channel…. We will not rule out any option that could help reduce the illegal migration and relieve the pressure on the broken asylum system.’ [3] ‘Broken’ because brave and desperate people are actually managing to get to the UK to seek asylum despite the Home Office’s best attempts to thwart them.   ‘Any option’ now clearly includes looking for help in ‘processing’ asylum-seekers from a country made notorious by genocide.  What has our country come to?


[1] https://www.hrw.org/africa/rwanda

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/03/what-press-freedom-looks-rwanda

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-patel-johnson-immigration-offshore-b1873903.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The Wicked Witch of Witham’

“Home is not a place – it’s a feeling”?

May 5th

A week is often said to be ‘a long time in politics.’  That is usually intended to convey the idea that a great deal can happen in a mere seven days, but it can equally well mean that shameful stories about the same political dispensation and politicians can keep coming out day after day after day without making a blind bit of difference to anything.  Seldom does a day go past without another scathing critique in the Guardian or The Independent of some contemptible utterance, policy or appointment from our Home Secretary, Priti Patel.  But she just sneers serenely on her way. It is not for nothing that a recent Tory Secretary of State, Sir Alan Duncan, a Knight of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, no less, refers to her in his memoirs as ‘a nothing person, a complete and utter nightmare, the Wicked Witch of Witham’.*

On Wednesday last week, a cross-party group of MPs concluded that the Home Office should no longer be responsible for asylum accommodation because it was consigning asylum seekers to ‘totally inappropriate’ living conditions.  This conclusion backed-up a British Red Cross report that warned that asylum seekers were being forced to live in ‘unsafe, unsanitary and isolated’ accommodation that fell far short of expected standards.**  Having closed off all ‘authorised’ routes to asylum seekers, Patel appears intent on deporting all asylum seekers who arrive by ‘unauthorised routes’, in other words all asylum seekers, without anyone even bothering to consider the merits of their claims for asylum.

On Thursday, May Bulman reported in The Independent that cross-party MPs ‘have attacked Home Office plans that will see more trafficking survivors locked up in immigration detention and threatened with removal, warning that it is a “hugely retrograde step”.’ ***  As with the arbitrarily slashing of the Foreign Aid budget, the Government appears to recognise that this might not get the approval of Parliament and is accordingly using the undemocratic device of a ‘statutory instrument’ to drive the change through without formal legislation.  John McDonnell described the move in Parliament as a ‘disgraceful act of inhumanity’ and made the point that victims of trafficking could be deterred from trying to escape from their traffickers if that just meant that they were going to be detained and deported without further ado if they did manage to escape.

On Saturday, The Independent reported that the government is being urged to remove the Windrush compensation scheme from the Home Office as more than 500 Windrush victims have been waiting for more than a year for their claims for compensation to be assessed and paid.  To date only 20% of victims have received compensation, while the Home Office refuses to disclose the number of people who have died while waiting for compensation.  The Independent has established that at least nine such victims had died uncompensated by August.  Patrick Vernon, a campaigner for the Windrush victims, is reported by May Bulman as having ascribed this failure to ‘institutional racism in the conduct, behaviour and procedures of the Home Office staff and the executive and political leadership’.  This last certainly rings true where Priti Patel is concerned, even if ‘leadership’ rather overestimates her abilities.

On Tuesday The Independent reported that Priti Patel has appointed Robin Simcox, who recently worked for a Donald Trump linked think tank, as our new commissioner for countering extremism.****  Simcox is sceptical about islamophobia  – ‘a word used to limit the parameters of legitimate debate’ – and thinks Boris Johnson should be ‘wary’ about any internal investigation of possible ‘islamophobia’ in the Conservative Party.  As far as he is concerned the term ‘violent extremism’ was only ‘dreamed up as a way to avoid saying “Islamic” or “Islamist” extremism’, and defining ‘hate crime’ as offences motivated by hostility based on perceived race, religion, sexual orientation or disability is ‘far too broad’.  So our new commissioner for countering extremism is of the view that most extremism isn’t actually extremism.  So he should have a pretty easy life; as will our rapidly increasing number of far-right extremists. 

Last week I was one of tens of thousands of people who signed a petition opposing Priti Patel’s ‘New Plan for Immigration’ on the grounds that it will: ‘put people at risk of being sent back to torture and persecution; make it more difficult for torture survivors to build a new life in the UK; prevent families from being reunited; and force torture survivors to live in inhumane conditions in isolated reception centres.’  But the petition won’t make any difference because, as John Rentoul pointed out in an article on Sunday debating whether Boris Johnson is a left-wing or right-wing Prime Minister (he concluded, astonishingly, that he is the most left-wing PM ever): ‘Even Patel’s absurd plan to build an asylum processing centre on Ascension Island had more support than opposition among the British public.’*****   It is this stampede to the right, encouraged in part by the rhetoric around Brexit, that anybody in England who cares about human rights is up against; and it is this that keeps Priti Patel in a job for which she would in the relatively recent past have been regarded as all too obviously wholly unsuitable. 


* https://metro.co.uk/2021/04/03/boris-named-embarrassing-buffoon-who-knew-nothing-about-brexit-14351922/?ito=cbshare

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-seekers-accommodation-home-office-b1838206.html

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/modern-slavery-trafficking-detention-mps-home-office-b1839121.html

**** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/extremism-commissioner-robin-simcox-islamophobia-b1832832.html

***** https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/editors-letters/boris-johnson-left-wing-tory-mp-b1840685.html

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: The right priorities?

The University of Cape Town

March 29th

As the implications of the abrupt cut in foreign aid I wrote about in my last entry become more starkly apparent, it is worth looking at some of those implications for development programmes in Africa, in particular, in a bit more detail. It is worth repeating that Boris Johnson, who is in the habit of pontificating about what the British public thinks and wants, claims that the public would think that in cutting overseas aid the government has its ‘priorities right’.  In his terms, the public would rather see their taxpayers’ money being spent on nuclear warheads than on people he is on record as having referred to as ‘piccanninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’.  ‘Foreign aid’ is an abstract concept that is unlikely to hold much attraction for a public continually exposed to a xenophobic narrative from right-wing media inclined to suggest that foreign aid going to Africa is always in danger of being siphoned off into the bank balances of corrupt officialdom. How richly ironic that is when one considers the extent to which our ‘straitened circumstances’ are at least partly due to the siphoning off of our taxpayers’ money into private bank balances via the corrupt handing out of billions of pounds worth of PPE and Test and Trace contracts to our own government’s chums. 

Yesterday’s The Observer, carried a brief report titled ‘”Brutal” cuts on overseas aid put African science projects in peril’ [1] from its Science Editor, Robin McKie, which provides a bit of granularity to the ‘Foreign Aid’ catch-all, and hints at some of the shock and devastation the arbitrary decision has occasioned.   A scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Anita Etale from Rwanda, who had spent two years putting together a team of researchers to help her develop a way of purifying contaminated water using maize and sugarcane stubble, had been promised the funding to develop a prototype but has now had the funding abruptly cancelled.  She told The Observer that her reaction ‘was one of bitter disappointment, grief and disbelief that Britain could do something this brutal.’   Johnson, and supposedly the British public, apparently think that nuclear warheads are a better investment than clean water for African children.

Similarly, a scientist at the University of Cape Town, Chris Trisos, the outcomes of whose work on how climate change will affect different species have been published in the highly prestigious journal Nature, has had his grant abruptly terminated for a new project to study how climate change will affect wild harvested food plants.  ‘In Africa’, Trisos is reported as saying, ‘millions of people rely on picking wild fruits and berries, but we know very little about how climate change might affect this essential nutrition source.’  When Trisos heard that his grant had been axed he said ‘I felt it like a physical blow when I was told.  My group’s future now looks very uncertain.’  So not only are nuclear warheads a better investment than clean water, they are also a better investment than food sources.  Someone needs to ask Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the other xenophobes in our government what they think is going to happen to the pressures of population migration if the supply of fresh food and uncontaminated water is allowed to dry up in Africa. 

But research on water purification and research on the extent to which wild plants can survive climate change are still somewhat abstract concepts, even when one hears about the devastation that the principal investigators feel when they hear that their research funding has suddenly been terminated without warning.  The principal investigators won’t be the only people affected.   Research teams will have been built up; countless hours will have been devoted to producing and submitting research proposals; administrators will have been employed; Human Resources managers will have the painfully difficult job of making colleagues redundant.   Researchers all too often have to rely on being able to bring in successive short-term research contracts – a sophisticated kind of hand-to-mouth existence without the job security afforded by tenured university positions.   The highs of getting research grants that will keep their research teams going are very high; by the same token the lows of having livelihoods put in jeopardy by the last-minute withdrawal of promised funding are very low.   The research projects for which the grants were funded have to be to be important and extremely well motivated: competition is strong and only the best projects have any chance of being funded.  The damage done to individuals, and the damage done to research development in developing countries is incalculable.   But why would our supremely insular Tory government worry about any of that?

The Observer article reports Richard Catlow, the Royal Society’s foreign secretary, as saying: ‘The cuts we were forced to make have been brutal.  We have seriously damaged our reputation as trusted partners in future collaborations.  The relationships that we have built up have been badly and, I fear, permanently weakened.’  No surprise there: if our proudly sovereign Brexity nation has demonstrated anything at all over the past year it is that we don’t give a damn about how badly and how permanently we trash our reputation as trusted partners and turn our sovereign backs on long-standing relationships.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/28/britains-brutal-cuts-to-overseas-aid-put-african-science-projects-in-peril

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Greed and capitalism’

March 25th

If anyone was still wondering what Brexit was all about, the last couple of weeks have provided some very clear pointers, not the least of which was Boris Johnson’s revealing off-the-cuff attribution of the success of the Covid-19 vaccine programme to ‘greed’ and ‘capitalism’ in a Zoom talk to Conservative backbenchers.  Astra-Zeneca is manufacturing the vaccine at cost, unlike the producers of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, as Johnson knows full well, but greed and capitalism have good cause to float around near the frothy surface of Johnson’s mind.  What the mythical ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ of the Brexit rhetoric would appear to have been about was the freedom to break international agreements, as we saw so clearly with the Northern Ireland agreement, and ignore our obligations under international treaties.  Both of which offer plenty of scope for capitalist greed.

Last week saw the publication of The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, a pointer to what Johnson means by ‘Global Britain’, one of whose more noteworthy proposals is for a 40% increase from 180 to 260 in the UK’s stock of nuclear warheads.  We apparently need to do this in the face of an ‘evolving security environment’ and a ‘developing range of technological and doctrinal threats.’   Dropping a hydrogen bomb on them has apparently become the best way to see off doctrinal threats.  The review explains that “A minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, assigned to the defence of Nato, remains essential in order to guarantee our security and that of our allies.” Our current stockpile would give us the capacity to wipe out 1,200 Hiroshimas, but that is apparently not enough. We are asked to believe that our deterrent won’t be ‘credible’ until we can wipe out more than 1,700 Hiroshimas.

Stewart McDonald’s response, in his capacity as the Scottish National Party’s defence spokesman, summed it up very well: “For the prime minister to stand up and champion the international rules-based system before announcing in the same breath that the UK plans to violate its commitments to the international treaty on non-proliferation beggars belief.”[1] David Cullen, the director of the Nuclear Information Service, added: “The UK has repeatedly pointed to its reducing warhead stockpile as evidence that it is fulfilling its legal duties under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. If they are tearing up decades of progress in reducing numbers, it will be a slap in the face to the 190 other members of the treaty, and will be regarded as a shocking breach of faith.”  But Brexit Britain isn’t going to get prissy about a little thing like a breach of faith, provided, of course, that it is its own breach of faith. 

Last week also saw confirmation that, as the head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs pithily put it, UK Ministers have decided to balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen in an act that will see tens of thousands die and damage the UK’s global influence.  Mark Lowcock went on to describe what the UK was doing as ‘an act of medium and longer term self-harm, and all for saving what is actually – in the great scheme of things at the moment – a relatively small amount of money.’[2] The UK’s aid to Yemen, much of which is used to address issues resulting from the bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, with the help of weapons the UK government refuses to stop selling to Saudi Arabia, is being cut by 47% to £87m.  The Guardian tells us that ‘Boris Johnson has said the decision is due to the “current straitened circumstances” caused by the pandemic and has insisted the public would think the government had its “priorities right”.’  So the British public would, in Johnson’s view, not mind that, in Lowcock’s words again, ‘There is no getting away from the fact that it will have the effect of large scale loss of life and the piling on of misery in lots of places.’ The government is legally bound to spend 0.7% of the national budget on foreign aid, so its decision to cut that to 0.5% needs the approval of parliament, but the government knows that even its own backbenchers will recognise the immorality and inhumanity of what it is doing, so it is refusing to put it to parliament on the pretext that the reduction is only temporary.  The introduction of income tax in 1799 was only a temporary measure to help fund the cost of the Napoleonic wars; it is still with us.

The ‘lots of places’ where the misery will be piled on include Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Libya and Nigeria whose aid packages are due to be cut by 60%, 59%, 67%, 63% and 58% respectively.  The UK has up to now enjoyed an international reputation for its support for international development, but then it also had a reputation for standing by its international agreements.   The entirely justified damage this mean-minded cut in foreign aid will do to our international reputation and influence is incalculable.  It is also extraordinarily short-sighted.   At a time when Priti Patel is flailing around trying to dream up ever more fascistic ways of ignoring another set of our international obligations and stopping asylum seekers who are legally entitled to seek refuge on our shores from reaching us, Lawcock points to some of the implications of what would happen if other countries decided to follow the UK’s deplorable example on the aid front: ‘The result would be much more loss of life and misery, additional instability and fragility, and more substantial problems in these hotspots, which, we know, from bitter experience, have a tendency to spread and create their own bad dynamics, with wider international consequences, including to countries like the UK.’  The best way of stopping asylum seekers arriving in Kent in small boats is to make life in their own countries livable.

So the aid budget is being slashed because of our present ‘straightened circumstances’; and NHS staff in England are being offered a derisory 1% salary increase, 25% of what is being offered in Scotland, ‘because we can’t afford more’. Yet we can afford to enlarge our almost entirely useless stockpile of nuclear weapons (when it comes to deterrents, it that were what is at issue, I would have thought one Hiroshima was quite enough), and to waste tens of billions of pounds on a still deeply unimpressive Test and Trace programme and on wasteful PPE contracts and inefficient lateral-flow tests.   Johnson’s telltale invocation of capitalism and greed provides the likely answer.  Austerity has returned to most public sector salaries, which are frozen, and we can only afford 1% for the nurses, because there is nothing whatever to be had by way of immediate pay-back.   Weapons manufacture, on the other hand, tends to pay handsome dividends, as no doubt do PPE and the private sector companies into whose eager hands the Test and Trace contracts were thrust.  If we are greedy enough, and can identify where the dividends will come from, we can learn to stop worrying and learn to love almost anything.


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/15/cap-on-trident-nuclear-warhead-stockpile-to-rise-by-more-than-40

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/07/uk-balancing-books-on-backs- of-yemens-starving-people-says-un-diplomat of-yemens-starving-people-says-un-

From David Maughan Brown in York: How worried should we be?

Shamima Begum

March 1st

One of the advantages – or possible disadvantages, depending on which way one looks at it – of writing a blog over the course of what is nearly a year now is that one can follow the painfully slow course of events as they grind their way though our chronically underfunded judicial system.   My entry on July 17th was about the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum, the London schoolgirl who had been successfully groomed by Isis to join them in Syria at the age of fifteen, should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship, and our unspeakable Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, vindictive decision immediately to appeal that ruling in the Supreme Court.

On Friday the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the grounds that Ms Begum didn’t need to be in this country to be able to make a ‘fair and effective’ appeal.[1]  The Court of Appeal had recognised in approving the initial appeal that there might be security implications involved in Ms Begum’s returning to UK to present her case: ‘Ms Begum should be allowed to come to the United Kingdom to pursue her appeal albeit subject to such controls as the secretary of state deems appropriate.’  But the Supreme Court judgement asserted that there was ‘no basis for the Court of Appeal’s finding that the national security concerns about Begum could be addressed and managed by her being prosecuted or subjected to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIM) on her return.’   Patel’s triumphalism in response to the Supreme Court’s verdict was wholly predictable:  ‘The Supreme Court has unanimously found in favour of the government’s decision, and reaffirmed the home secretary’s authority to make vital national security decisions.’

Before too many champagne corks are popped by the assorted Islamophobes and/or indiscriminate racists whose support Priti Patel must be assuming in her celebration of our newly independent sovereign state’s ability to sock it to a stateless 21-year old woman languishing in a Syrian detention camp, it might be a good idea to look a bit more closely at what the highest courts in the land have said.  The Appeal Court said that to protect the safety of the British public Shamima Begum should be subject to whatever controls Patel might deem necessary – which would obviously include imprisonment.  It is difficult to interpret Patel’s immediate decision to appeal that verdict as anything other than an admission that she has no appropriate controls.  The Supreme Court then backed this up by saying that there was no basis for the Appeal Court’s finding ‘that the national security concerns about Begum could be addressed and managed by her being prosecuted of subjected to TPIM on her return.’

So Patel’s triumphalist assertion of her success in winning her appeal is, in effect, a celebration of the fact, now endorsed by the highest courts in the land, that there is nothing the state can do to protect us as citizens of the UK against the threat of terrorism we would incur by allowing a 21-year old woman who may or may not be harbouring terroristic inclinations (we have no means of knowing) back into the country to present her appeal in person against being rendered stateless.   The arbitrary decision by our previous Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, to deprive Begum of her citizenship and render her stateless in the context of the refusal of Bangladesh to grant her citizenship was, of course, contrary to international law and this was implicitly recognised by the Supreme Court: ‘Although [Begum] cannot be rendered stateless, the loss of her British citizenship may nevertheless have a profound effect upon her life….’  But the Supreme Court decided, nevertheless, that ‘it would be irresponsible for the court to allow the appeal without any regard to the interests of national security….’

So even when we know exactly who it is who might be a potential terrorist, and even though we can make sure that they are securely guarded throughout their time in our  country if they are allowed back, either to be tried or to appeal against the illegal removal of their citizenship, our security services are so hopelessly useless that none of us would be safe.   Given that Lizzie Dearden, the Independent’s home affairs correspondent, reports that 40 percent of the 900 people who left the UK to join one or other side in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq are already back in the UK, we should presumably be very worried indeed about our safety.  But then it is just possible that we are, in fact, reasonably safe, and that Priti Patel just happens to have chosen the unlucky (or criminally culpable, who knows without a fair trial) Shamima Begum as the victim for her vicious grandstanding as Patel plays her Strong Woman role for the benefit of her gallery of deplorables.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/shamima-begum-return-uk-supreme-court-b1807924.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 Maughan Brown in York: ‘Rage, rage against the dying of the light’

Blow winds and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

February 6th

So our inimitable Home Secretary, Pretti Patel, the darling of the political dinosaurs of the Conservative Party, has finally found her ideal solution to the irritating problems posed by pesky foreigners misguided enough to seek asylum in the UK.  If you can’t create giant waves along the length of the English Channel to swamp their overcrowded dinghies and drown them, and you can’t pack them off to St Helena in the South Atlantic as soon as they arrive, the best thing to do is to make the lives of those who don’t die of disease so unutterably miserable and dangerous at the Covid-19 plagued Napier Barracks in Kent that they will be desperate enough to risk those lives once again by crossing the channel to get back to France.  

Yesterday’s Independent carried an article by May Bulman whose title says it all:  ‘”Inhumane” conditions are forcing asylum seekers to risk their lives to leave UK.’[1]   As one Kurdish asylum seeker intent of making the return journey put it: ‘I am not being treated like a human being here.  The Home Office is making an effort to make people hate asylum seekers…. The journey back is totally dangerous.… But in the UK I am losing my dignity.’   A Syrian man who managed to reach UK after five years of trying, but who is now also intent on leaving, said: ‘I want to feel that I am a human being.  I want dignity and freedom.  I am looking for safety.  I came here because I thought there was no racism in the UK and that it was a country that protects people’s human rights.’  This is obviously deeply shameful, a desperately depressing indictment of this country as represented by its 2021 Conservative government, but what on earth is the point, one might well ask, of writing a blog entry on Covid2020diary about it? 

One normally thinks of a diary as a daily record of the events of the day, which makes the writing of diary entries somewhat problematic when day follows day follows day, with very few of those indistinguishable days being able to boast anything resembling an event.  One can go out for an occasional bike ride when the weather permits, but usually around the same traffic-avoiding circuit, now keeping well clear of the Ouse which is still in flood.  One has the very occasional fleeting non-contact with family, friends or neighbours, and the very welcome but very distanced ‘contact’ via FaceTime, Zoom or Whattsapp chats.  But there is an overriding sense of stasis. The result being that much of what a diary or blog entry is left to record in the absence of noteworthy events in one’s own life is the thoughts, emotions and reactions stirred by external events.  

In our present context this can all too often feel like raging against the dying of the light.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is, of course, about old age, which should in his view ‘burn and rave at close of day.’  That may well be applicable in my case, although it is probably fair to say that ‘old age’ isn’t quite what it used to be, even as relatively recently as 1947 when Thomas wrote the poem.   But I recall having a very strong sense of raging against the dying of the light, to broaden the scope of the metaphor, when lecturing, speaking on public platforms and at funerals, and writing articles for, and letters to, the newspapers raging against apartheid in South African between 1970 and 1990.   In those years, unpleasant as it was, 3am death threats, loads of chicken manure being sent to be dumped on our lawn, workers arriving to cut down all the trees in our garden (both of the last two fortunately being intercepted) and so on, at least made it clear that, if nothing else, what I was doing and saying was getting under the skin of the apartheid Security Branch.  It won’t have contributed to the demise of the National Party and the formal ending of apartheid, but it was clearly making an impression on somebody.

Here the light is not, at least not yet, dying as comprehensively as it was in South Africa under apartheid, but one just has to look across the Atlantic to see how Biden’s arrival in the Oval Office has dispelled so much of the darkness of the Trump era to recognize the extent to which, by contrast, the light is still dying in the darker corners of our own polity.   By way of illustration one could point to Biden’s immediate executive order to reunite the children of asylum seeking immigrants with their parents, by way of contrast to our government’s illegal detention of immigrant children, which is reported in today’s Independent to have been condemned by Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, as ‘wilfully ignoring the plight of vulnerable children’.  But is there much point in the UK of 2021 in raging against the dying of the light by writing letters to newspapers; making blog entries; signing petitions organized by Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Change.org etc.; responding to surveys, publishing human rights themed novels, and making whatever peripheral contribution I can, to the excellent work of the Centre for Applied Human Rights?

Beyond the few reassuring ‘likes’ that indicate that a handful of people are reading the blogs, raging feels about as effective as King Lear’s raging against the storm.  The storm can’t hear King Lear and, even if it could, it is controlled by forces far stronger than even a Shakespearean king has the power to control.  I know, to refer back to Dylan Thomas’s villanelle, that my words are forking no lightning, but I also know that, unlike his ‘wise men’ who ‘at their end know dark is right’, I remain convinced that raging against the dying of the light is better than subsiding into frustrated silence.  Lightning is destructive, contributing to Covid2020diary, while not necessarily creative, has provided a necessary outlet for otherwise impotent frustration over the past year.   Readers who don’t want to read what they might well regard as yet another rant about Johnson, or Priti Patel, or the Home Office, don’t need to.  It is possible that I lived under apartheid for so long that I can’t shake off the now ingrained compulsion to rage against what I perceive to be the dying of the light.  I’m just grateful to those responsible for setting Covid2020diary up for providing a vehicle.


[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20210205/281672552628016