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

From David Maughan Brown in York: Dehumanising the victims

Napier barracks in Folkestone

January 28th

January 27th being Holocaust Memorial Day, we attended the annual civic commemoration of the day, this year via Zoom.  York has more cause that most UK cities to be highly sensitive to Holocaust Memorial Day, having been the site of anti-Semitic riots which culminated on 16th March 1190 in the murders or suicides of the entire one hundred and fifty or so Jewish community of York when they sought refuge in the wooden keep of what later became Clifford’s Tower, which was then burnt to the ground.

Yesterday’s very well put together commemoration was Zoomed from the University of York and introduced by the Vice Chancellor, the Archbishop of York and the Lord Mayor.  The major part of the ceremony featured a very moving talk by Ariana Neumann who told the story behind her memoir When Time Stopped, which recounts  her gradual uncovering, as she grew up in Venezuela, of the past her German-speaking Jewish father would never ever talk about.  Ariana discovered that 25 of the 29 members of her father’s extended family had perished in the Nazi concentration camps and that, although he had managed to escape being sent to the camps himself, her father’s experience had left him so traumatised that he was never able to speak about it.   As is the case every year, if the appalling horror of the murder of the Jews, travellers and others in the concentration camps was the one very striking aspect of the import one took away from the commemoration, the other was the recognition that it took years of incremental dehumanization of the victims to enable their mass murder in the gas-chambers to take place.

All facile analogies or comparisons of other circumstances and events with the Holocaust itself are rightly regarded with suspicion as potentially anti-Semitic tropes, but it is clear that all genocides such as those in Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Bosnia and in Darfur begin with the dehumanization of the victims that characterized Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II.   So it is greatly heartening to see that President Biden recognizes the importance of an immediate reversal of his predecessor’s insistence on demonising and dehumanising asylum-seekers and other immigrants.  Putting a stop to the building of Trump’s wall, and decreeing that government documents cease using the term ‘alien’ and speak of ‘non-citizens’ instead, may be largely symbolic, but reuniting immigrant children with their parents, and calling a 100-day halt to deportations, are much more than symbolic.  ‘Non-citizen’ is, of course, only halfway to being acceptable terminology, given the ‘non-White’ term beloved of apartheid functionaries and still used with such casual thoughtlessness in contemporary political and media discourse in the UK.

All the more reason then for dismay when, on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, firstly, our Trumpian Home Office, in this instance fronted by Chris Philip, the immigration Minister, announces that unaccompanied child refugees will no longer be given sanctuary in the UK, in spite of the fact that the Home Office takes ‘responsibility for the welfare of children very seriously.’   So seriously that their welfare can happily be left to the people-traffickers.  Secondly, an article by May Bulman in The Independent[1]exposes the extent of the Covid19 outbreak at the Napier Barracks in Folkstone, one of the “camps” being used to house asylum seekers in the UK.  Bulman reports that by Tuesday over 100 positive cases had been recorded with at least one asylum seeker having resorted to rough sleeping in the camp to avoid having to sleep in a dormitory with up to 27 others, any of whom might be infected.   On 11th January Chris Philip responded to a parliamentary written question saying that the Home office was reviewing the recommendations of a ‘rapid review’ of asylum accommodation.  Ten days later the Home Office was still reviewing the recommendations.

Given the Windrush scandal, the ‘hostile environment’, and the callous indifference to the fate of asylum seekers exhibited by the Home Office and its current figurehead, Priti Patel, it is not stretching too much of a point to wonder whether confining asylum-seekers under such conditions in the first place, and the unconscionable delay in reviewing the findings of the ‘rapid review’ of their accommodation and doing something about it, is not deliberate, rather than just yet another manifestation of our government’s inveterate incompetence.   If we can’t generate waves in the English Channel to swamp the asylum-seekers’ dinghies, and we can’t send them all to St Helena, by way of deterrents, let’s just not worry too much about whether some of them die of Covid.   That might put an extra burden on the NHS, but it could stop them wanting to come here.  If that sounds unduly cynical I would, once again, cite in my defence the striking similarity of attitude and mode of operation of our Home Office to that of apartheid South Africa’s Department of the Interior.   

The relatively good news is that even the most cursory research will show that it isn’t only the Guardian and The Independent that have carried this story sympathetically. Even the Sun and the Daily Mail have done soboth of which have reported on a petition to shut down the site, along with a similar facility at a barracks in Wales, which had already by last Tuesday amassed more than 10,000 signatures.  So, much as the behaviour of the Home Office would suggest that it sees its role as being to take the lead in the incremental dehumanization of the victims of an inherently xenophobic government, it would seem that it still has some way to go if even the populist mouthpieces and opinion leaders of the tabloid press are still able to view the victims of the Home Office’s bullying sympathetically.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/asylum-camps-home-office-covid-b1792422.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: What are they thinking?

14th January

One of the problems associated with trying to preserve what is left of one’s sanity under lockdown via a high degree of selectivity where the news media are concerned is that it is extremely difficult to get a handle on precisely what the great British public is thinking.  Reading the Independent, Guardian and New European, and watching or listening exclusively to the BBC and Channel 4 news, doesn’t help very much when it comes to gauging just how much support there is for current government ministers or their policies.  One assumes that a populist government would be anxious to run its policy proposals past focus groups representing ‘the people’ in the interest of maintaining its popularity, but can it be doing so in present circumstances?  Or is it having to look for affirmation from the dwindling numbers of members in the Conservative Party whose average age was estimated by the Bow Group, a Conservative think tank, in 2017 as 72 (although others suggest the rather lower figure of 57).*   Now that Brexit is ‘done’, for ill or even worse ill, does Boris Johnson keep the likes of Gavin Williamson and Priti Patel in key posts in the cabinet, in spite of the levels of embarrassment they occasion, because he thinks the Tory-voting public like their policies, because he thinks the Conservative Party likes them, because they know too much about him, or just because he is beyond embarrassment?

Having kept Priti Patel at a safe distance from the 10 Downing Street press conferences since May, in spite of the fact that she is Home Secretary and thereby ultimately responsible to Johnson for the explaining and policing of lockdown measures, Boris Johnson absent-mindedly allowed her to front the press conference on Tuesday evening.  In response to questions about how the lockdown rules should be interpreted, Patel confidently assured the nation that ‘The rules are actually very simple and clear’, and went on to elaborate on what is permitted: ‘And then of course outdoor recreation but in a very, very restricted and limited way, staying local.’  Given that the point of the questioning was to ask what ‘local’ is supposed to mean, and given that ‘recreation’ is explicitly ruled-out in the government guidance – ‘It is against the law to … leave home for recreational or leisure purposes…’ – this was less than helpful.  Unsurprisingly, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick appears not to think that the rules ‘are actually very clear and simple’: she recently told the BBC’s Today programme that, ‘Anything that brings greater clarity for officers and the public in general will be a good thing.’

John Rentoul, The Independent’s chief political commentator, claims that Patel is popular among Conservative Party members, which raises the question as to whether there really is wider support beyond that very limited (in several ways) group for the short-sighted and xenophobic viciousness of Patel’s policies on asylum and immigration.  So, to take just two examples this week, in The Independent on Sunday 10th  Rob Merrick reported that, in line with Patel’s crack-down on immigration, our government had refused the EU’s offer of the ‘standard’ reciprocal visa-free exemption for performers and then, predictably, lied that it was the EU that had refused the UK’s request.   This had been greeted with outrage from the music industry, which stands to lose a significant portion of its annual income as a consequence.  On Wednesday 12th The Independent carried an excoriating critique of Patel’s ‘brutal’ approach to asylum-seekers which risks ‘whipping up an unpleasant reaction to some very vulnerable people’ by no lesser figure than Caroline Noakes, Priti Patel’s Conservative predecessor as Home Secretary.** Where asylum-seekers are concerned, Noakes suggested that commitments to change the Home Office following the Windrush scandal had been ‘torn up, disregarded and rendered clearly completely irrelevant’, citing a camp for asylum-seekers being set up on Ministry of Defence land in her Kent constituency that has no electricity or water mains and will not be provided with healthcare.  Noakes concluded that asylum ‘is an incredibly hard nut to crack, but I don’t think you crack it by being inhuman towards people; I don’t think you crack it by being brutal and muscular in your policies.’

So we find two markedly contrasting approaches within the same Conservative Party: the one brutal and inhuman – and one could cite reams more evidence against Patel in that regard; the other compassionate.  If Rentoul is right about the Patel being popular with the membership of the Conservative Party, it seems reasonable to suppose that Caroline Noakes probably isn’t.  But the critical question for me, in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol in Washington by white supremacists, is just how much support the Tories have among the great British public for their brutal and inhuman approach to immigration and asylum.  One has to assume that, at the very least, Johnson and Patel must be confident that support for their brutality extends well beyond the limited membership of the Conservative Party.  I would like to think that, despite the best efforts of the Sun and the Daily Mail, the majority of the British public would, if it came to it, disavow a policy of calculated brutality and inhumanity towards exceptionally vulnerable people seeking refuge in our country.  But I could be wrong.  As I acknowledged at the outset, I don’t have a finger anywhere near the pulse of the general populace.  If I am wrong, it really does matter.  Because if I am wrong that would suggest that England is nurturing a hard core of white supremacists and assorted extremists who might well be capable of the violent storming of the Palace of Westminster at the behest of a maverick political leader, just as their counterparts in USA stormed the Capitol.   

*https://fullfact.org/news/how-old-average-conservative-party-member/

** https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/home-office-immigration-caroline-nokes-priti-patel-uk-b1776208.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Having one’s fishcake and eating it.

The Conker King

December 31st

So, as 2020 shuffles embarrassedly off the stage, our ever-modest, ever-honest, ever-understated Prime Minister has finally, as far as he is concerned, ‘got Brexit done.’   As of 11pm tonight it will all be a thing of the past, the bright new dawn will break in the middle of the coldest night this winter, and we can all come together again and rejoice in our newly won freedom and sovereignty.  Not only has be ‘got Brexit done’ but, as he announced to the evident astonishment of BBC’s outstanding political commentator, Laura Kuenssberg, who was interviewing him yesterday, he has achieved what the skeptics regarded as being impossible by way of ‘cakeism’:  he has managed both to have his cake and eat it.  Given that we have actually had a sovereign throughout the four and a half long years of the Brexit saga, I’m hoping it isn’t too outrageously pro-EU of me to wonder whether he has taken the trouble to ask Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II what she thinks of his cake deal.  It isn’t difficult to guess what the answer would be, were the protocol to allow her to tell him. 

The ‘democratic’ process of parliamentary approval of the deal left something to be desired.  After those very long, very fraught, four and a half years, our elected representatives were allowed all of 24 hours to read the 1200/2000-page (estimates vary) agreement, and given five hours to debate it.  Leaving aside the minor detail that the cake deal only looks at trade in goods, which account for only 20% of our GDP, and completely ignores the other 80% that relates to Services, there remains endless potential for years of ongoing wrangling with EU negotiators on a wide range of important issues, such as: the mutual recognition of professional qualifications; data sharing; and, perhaps the most serious, security, as the deal cuts the UK out of the Schengen Information System database, which provides real time information on serious crime and terrorism and was said by a senior police officer to have been checked 603 million times by the police last year, and the EU’s policing agency, Europol.  Our Home Secretary, Priti Patel’s, assertion that the deal will make UK ‘safer and more secure’ is manifestly untrue.

The great ambition of Brexit was for the UK to ‘take back control’ of its destiny which, bearing the island heritage of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Horatio Nelson et al. in mind, meant the need to demonstrate symbolically that Britannia Rules the Waves.  The grand announcement of the agreement of a deal was delayed hour by hour, pizza by pizza, through the night into Christmas Eve as the 0.12% of UK GDP represented by the off-shore fishing industry was haggled over to this end.  Given that HMS Victory, the Golden Hind and Raleigh’s ship the Ark Ralegh (which he gave to Elizabeth 1st who ungratefully renamed it the Ark Royal) are, regrettably, no longer in service, the waves these days apparently have to be ruled by fishing trawlers.  One might have imagined that the triumphant gesture with which Johnson greeted the news of the agreement (see above) – the eleven-year old who has just been crowned Conker King of the second form – signified that he had achieved his goal of having his fishcake and eating it.  But far from it.  The Independent’s analysis tells us that:  ‘EU boats will continue fishing in UK waters but their share of fish will [only] fall 15 per cent in the first year and 2.5 per cent in each of the four following years…. By 2026, UK boats will be allowed to catch approximately £140m more fish.’   After that there will be annual negotiations, and no doubt more late night pizzas (despite Brexit being ‘done’ five years before) to decide how much of the catch each side gets.  The UK could, of course, decide at that point not to allow anyone else’s fishing boats into its waters, but then not only would the EU be entitled to place tariffs on UK exports (including all the fish the UK can’t eat as it is), but someone has also uncovered a paragraph buried among the 1200/2000 pages entitling the EU to cut its supplies of petrol and gas to UK in such an eventuality. SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford has spotted, buried in the detail, that the deal Johnson is busy celebrating means that Scottish boats will actually have less access to cod and haddock than they do now.   Apart from being yet more grist to the Scottish Independence mill, this means that whatever fishcake Johnson thinks he can both have and eat is unlikely to be made from either of our two most popular fish.

I hope it won’t sound too hollow if I take this opportunity to wish everyone a Happy New Year as Covid2020diary turns 21, in fact if not in name.

From David Maughan Brown in York: It’s all in the stars.

December 23rd

Manston Airport in Kent: 22/12/20

‘It’s all in the stars’ – or, more accurately, to be a bit of a killjoy, in the planets.  A Grand Conjunction only happens once every 800 years so it must, of course, be redolent of cosmic significance, and Jupiter and Saturn chose to align for our benefit at the winter solstice in 2020.  What could be more significant than that?  Given what 2020 has dished out to everyone, astrological significance should come as no surprise, but when it comes to comprehensive interpretation one has to rely on the wisdom of astrologers.  What better authority to call on to tell us what it all means than the Daily Telegraph’s tame astrologer Carolyne (sic) Faulkner who informs the world that this conjunction is occurring in Aquarius, which is an air sign, and that all other conjunctions for the next 200 years will be occurring in air signs.  She goes on to say that whereas “Earth energy triggers people to become more grounded, practical, sensible; to have respect for politicians and institutions. Air energy triggers cerebral, less tangible happenings.”

I’m glad she told us that.  If we had been told that it was Earth energy that was holding sway over us we would have had to conclude that the energy, like that of the pink mechanical rabbit in the battery advertisement, was grinding to an arthritic halt.  There is very little that is grounded, practical or sensible in the way we are being governed, and respect for politicians, and many institutions – the NHS being a notable exception – dribbled away long ago.   On the other hand, if air energy ‘triggers cerebral less tangible happenings’ that explains why our entire economic and societal future is currently caught up in an ideological wind-storm with no tangible benefits whatever in prospect.  To take the latest example of the utterly delusional cerebral forces determining our future (giving the benefit of any doubt that anything resembling a brain is involved), one only has to cite our representative Home Secretary, the inimitable Priti Patel: ‘The government has consistently, throughout this year, been ahead of the curve in terms of proactive measures.’  She then went on to correct Boris Johnson’s absurd claim that only 170 HGV’s were queuing in Kent, by claiming the number was 1500, in itself a serious underestimate (today there are said to be 5000- 8000), and then pointing out that the number was constantly fluctuating as “lorries are not static”.  Tell that to the drivers of the seemingly motionless lorries ‘stacked’ on Manston airfield in the photograph above.   She might also like to tell them where they are supposed to find food, water and loos – never mind somewhere to sleep – for the three or four non-‘static’ days they are having to spend in Kent before being forced to be away from their children for Christmas.

The Grand Conjunction, symbolically hidden from the view of most of the UK by impenetrable clouds, should probably be taken as nothing more esoteric than a stark cosmic warning – a preview projected in the stars – of the much less grand, but probably equally far reaching, conjunction of Covid19 and Brexit.  The French government, understandably panicked by our callow Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock’s, ill-judged statement that the new variant of the virus was ‘out of control’, promptly closed their borders to all people coming from UK, and every single state in the EU, apart from Greece and Cyprus which are retaining strict quarantine regulations, immediately followed suit.  Many other countries around the world have now done the same.  So our proudly independent and sovereign little island nation is completely cut off; nobody wants us anywhere near.  Our rabidly jingoistic tabloid press promptly and predictably erupted with age-old Francophobic fury, accusing President Macron of playing politics.  Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian politician, reflecting on the current chaos and probably on the empty supermarket shelves to come, commented that the British people “will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means….”  Matt Hancock, gaze fixed firmly on the national navel, and unable to see beyond the white cliffs of Dover, had been intending his comment to persuade those living on his little island to abide by their Tier restrictions, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world was bound to be listening.  Those trying to argue that lorry drivers don’t pose any risk of transmitting the virus because they spend their time ‘alone in their cabs’, and should have been allowed to cross back to France, have the same problem with national navel-gazing: they would appear not to have heard that HIV/AIDS research in South Africa has demonstrated very clearly that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa can be traced along the routes taken by long-distance truck drivers ‘alone in their cabs’.

The timing of the Grand Conjunction so close to Christmas 2020 has reawakened discussion of the theory that the star of Bethlehem in the story of the nativity could have originated with the conjunction of Jupiter with Venus (rather than Saturn) in 2BC. For those inclined to read messages into astronomical events, there might be a message there for our nationalistic ‘Christian’ xenophobes as they ponder the Nativity story in their unsung Christmas church services.   Perhaps the writing in the stars might be inviting them to compare the fates of two families, and two very young children in particular.   On the one hand, 15-month-old baby Artin who drowned in the English Channel in 2020, along with his parents, Rasoul and Shiva, his nine-year-old sister Anita, and his six-year-old brother Armin, after the family had fled from the violence in the near East, travelling from Iran to Turkey, Italy and France before having to try to cross the channel in a small boat because Priti Patel had closed off all legal and safe ways to get here under the pretext of Covid.  On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth, whose parents had also had to flee violence in the near East, but who found refuge in a non-Christian country that was happy to provide refuge to asylum seekers long before there were international agreements requiring countries to do so.

It’s all in the stars – if one only knew how to interpret them.