From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Suffer the little children…’

August 5th

Yesterday morning’s BBC Today programme featured an interview with Charleen Jack-Henry, an NHS nurse whose daughter, Nicole, left with her husband and three children to join ISIS in Syria five years ago.  Nicole’s husband and eldest son, Isaac, by then nine years-old, were killed in the conflict and Nicole and her three remaining children, all under 12, have ended up, ‘abandoned by the British government’, as the children’s grandmother says, in a Syrian refugee camp, like Shamima Begum whom I wrote about on 17th July, .  The report indicated that there are around 80 British citizens (or ex-British citizens if, like Shamima Begum, they have had their citizenship arbitrarily terminated) in such camps, most of whom are women and children.  Our Conservative government apparently pays lip-service to the idea that children are innocent, but has so far managed only to repatriate three British orphans from Syria.  Irrespective of the innocence of the children, any parent who has gone to join ISIS must, by definition, be so serious a threat to national security that she must be kept out of the country at all costs, literally, as demonstrated by our craven government’s desperate attempt to overturn the Appeal Court’s verdict that Shamima Begum be allowed to return to UK to present her case.

What, exactly, is our government so frightened of?  Are they, newly ‘independent’, incapable of doing anything that might not win the approval of the frothing reactionaries of The Sun and its ilk? Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act of 2015, which they themselves passed into law, relates to ‘Controlling or Coercive Behaviour’.   If they can recognise the existence of such behaviour, how do they know that Nicole Jack wasn’t coerced by her husband into going to Syria, or doesn’t that matter?  That could be assessed by a court of law on her return, if they weren’t too scared to allow her back.  Even if she went to Syria willingly, how do they know that the harrowing experiences she has been through won’t have enlightened her?  Does their theology not allow for any possibility of redemption?  Or do they suspect that the prison system for which they are responsible is entirely incapable of reforming anyone?  In which case what are they doing about it?  As the children’s Trinidadian step-grandmother, via Nicole’s second marriage, says: ‘If you leave kids in a place where violence is normalised, they can’t have a normal life.’  Charleen Jack-Henry’s own wistful plea for her grandchildren is: ‘Don’t we owe these children a duty of care?’  Don’t we?

Our arrogant, self-absorbed government has a lot to learn from the supposedly ‘third world’ countries it looks down on from its ‘global Britain’ pinnacle.   The Attorney-General of Trinidad and Tobago, Faris Al-Rawi, is much less terrified of the Trinidadian women and children currently languishing in Syrian refugee camps, in spite of the roughly 130 men who left Trinidad to join ISIS and are now said to be ‘desperate to return.’  Al-Rawi recognises that under international law Trinidad is obliged to take them back – ‘we must have our citizens returned to our country’ – and is introducing new terror laws to allow them back.  These laws are designed, he says, ‘so that we can buffer their return, receive them into a safe zone so that we can actually debrief, investigate and reacclimatise our citizens into life in Trinidad and Tobago in a responsible way.’  It would be good if ‘global Britain’ could have a global government of all the talents.  I suggested some time ago that Jacinda Ardern would make an excellent Prime Minister, perhaps she could choose Faris Al-Rawi as her Attorney-General.  He sounds to be unlikely to run scared of The Sun, and would appreciate the poignancy and truth of the words of the children’s Trinidadian grandmother: ‘I can’t see a four year-old boy being a terrorist.’

From David Maughan Brown in York: Stateless in Syria

July 17th

Every day that passes provides fresh insight into the kind of government we, as members of the UK electorate, have landed ourselves with for the next four and a half years. Today’s response to the Court of Appeal’s decision that Shamima Begum should be allowed back into the UK to present her appeal against the removal of her British citizenship provides yet another window into the government’s contempt for human rights, and further evidence of just how little credence should be given to the pretence that the Huawei decision had anything whatever to do with China’s abysmal human rights record.   

A fifteen year-old schoolgirl, technically still a child, is successfully brainwashed by terrorist fanatics and sets off, accompanied by two friends of similar age, to join them in Syria.  Our much-bruited Prevent programme would appear not to have detected the fact that they were being radicalised; the police had interviewed all three of them when a friend of theirs left for Syria a few months earlier, but left it at that; our ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office failed to stop them at the border or prevent them from leaving the country.   They join ISIS, Begum marries an ISIS fighter, and they lend their tacit (perhaps active, we don’t know) support to ISIS atrocities, and when ISIS is defeated Shamima Begum turns up in a refugee camp.   Our government, ignoring her right to a fair trial, promptly disowns her and removes her British citizenship on the specious grounds that in spite of being born, brought up and radicalised in UK, she has a technical right to Bangladeshi citizenship.  The Government of Bangladesh equally promptly, and understandably, says she is the UK’s responsibility and denies her that right, so she is rendered stateless.  This in spite of the fact that no less an expert on the deprivation of human rights than Theresa May is on record as saying that ‘it is illegal for any country to make its citizens stateless.’

The Appeal Court’s decision merely means that Shamima Begum should be allowed back to present her case, and does not imply that she should be allowed to stay in UK.   But that ruling, all too predictably, was enough to provoke an outpouring of bile from the frothing loons of the right-wing tabloid press.   The Sun, as so often, epitomises the fanaticism with its headline: ‘Shamima Begum ruling is monstrous – this vile fanatic has no place on our soil.’   Given that the right-wing media will always be pulling whichever of this puppet government’s strings Dominic Cummings isn’t pulling himself, the Home Office response was all too depressingly predictable:  it will appeal the Appeal Court’s ruling to the Supreme Court.   Whatever Shamima Begum has done wrong should be exposed in open trial in UK , and she should be sentenced accordingly.   The arbitrary life-sentence of statelessness in a Syrian refugee camp, which in the age of Covid-19 probably amounts to a death sentence, handed down by the Home Secretary is manifestly unjust, however convenient for the government and the Home Office it might be in helping them to avoid being held to account for allowing Begum to be radicalised and to leave the country in the first place.  

Shamima Begum was an all too obviously impressionable child when she was brain-washed into leaving the UK at the age of fifteen.   How far have we actually come in the fewer than seventy years since a fourteen year-old boy could be hanged as a ‘terrorist’ under the State of Emergency in Kenya, in the name of our of still reigning monarch, for the offence of being found in possession of a bullet?  And can we have any confidence whatever that The Sun wouldn’t still think that that was a good idea?

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’

June 26th

Today is what we used, during the apartheid years, to refer to as South Africa Freedom Day:  commemorating the signing of the Freedom Charter at a conference organised by the Congress of Democrats attended by 3,000 people in Kliptown, outside Johannesburg.   The name has subsequently, entirely understandably, been transferred to April 27th to commemorate the longed-for day in 1994 when South Africa experienced its first post-apartheid (and first genuine) general election.   Today also happens to be my second son, Brendan’s, birthday, which is being celebrated without us this year in Cape Town.  One son born on Soweto Day, the other born on South Africa Freedom Day, there had to be a message there somewhere.

This year Brendan was very unexpectedly presented with a birthday present by Chelsea Football Club.   He has been a passionate supporter of Liverpool FC from a very early age, in so far as it is possible to ‘support’ a football club from a distance of 6000 miles, and woke this morning to the news that, after 30 years of waiting, Liverpool had finally won the English Premiership title again, courtesy of Chelsea winning a match against Manchester City.   He would have had the good sense not to join the Liverpool fans’ ecstatic, Covid-defying revelry last night, had he been there, but he will have been just as ecstatic.

The restart of the locked-down football season this week has made me aware of just how much I missed watching football in the scheduled run-up to the climax of the season.   This is a statement my sons would identify with entirely, and my daughters-in-law would find completely incomprehensible.   I have to confess that I was unashamedly delighted by this outcome too, and not just out of empathy for my Liverpool-supporting sons, son-in-law, and grandson.  Why confess?  Because – and, safely buried this far into a blog, I can probably get away with saying it – I have been a Manchester United supporter ever since the Munich air disaster in 1957.  Manchester United supporters would generally rather see anyone in the entire universe win anything that their own club can’t win, just as long as it isn’t Liverpool.

My loyalty, then, is a bit fickle.  What I really enjoy is watching ‘the beautiful game’  played at its most beautiful, and, at football’s best, that term isn’t as absurd as it might sound to non-believers.   The speed, the athleticism, the ball-control and the intricate inter-passing; the vision to be able to pick a fifty-yard pass and execute it perfectly; the ability to dribble a ball through a crowd of opponents; the bravery and gymnastic ability of the best goal-keepers – what is not to admire?   When football is played by an outstanding team, with all the players playing at the top of their form, it can be mesmerising.  Liverpool’s 2020 team has it all, and they have a brilliantly charismatic and likeable manager in Jurgen Klopp, who is also an outstanding football tactician, to bring it all together.  Klopp’s team are leading the highly competitive Premier League by a truly astonishing 23 points with a handful of matches remaining; by way of comparison, for those who aren’t followers of the game, Manchester City won last year with a record total but a margin of only a single point over Liverpool.  So, yes, Liverpool fully deserved to win, and I’m delighted it happened for Brendan’s birthday.

Being an inveterately political animal, as anyone reading these blogs will have discovered long ago, my sympathies, if not my full-hearted support when they play Man U, have been with Liverpool FC ever since Hillsborough.   Sport can elicit a wide variety of emotions, but none I have experienced have ever come anywhere near the emotion elicited by standing in a packed crowd at Anfield singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” while supporters at the Kop end (named after the battle of Spion Kop in the Anglo-Boer war) held banners aloft commemorating the 96 fans who were crushed to death at the Hillsborough ground in Sheffield in 1989.  I cannot believe that even the most partisan Manchester United supporter could have failed to feel sympathy for the families and friends of those 96 fans in the face of the police lies and cover-up of their responsibility for the disaster, the unspeakably contemptible coverage of the event by the execrable Sun, and the British establishment’s preparedness, all the way up to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to believe the story that responsibility for the disaster lay with drunken Liverpool fans.  Almost 30 years of dogged determination on the part of the Liverpool fans to see the truth eventually acknowledged, if justice by no means done, was wholly admirable and very nearly enough, in itself, to demand a shift of allegiance.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Very testing

May 10th

When, rather more than a month ago, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care set his arbitrary target of ‘100,000 Covid-19 tests a day’ by April 30th few of us will have appreciated just how literal he was being.  What Matt Hancock meant by ‘a day’ was very precise: the one day he meant was April 30th.  His triumphant claim of 122,000 tests for that day has been debunked, but, leaving that aside, he will no doubt have been feeling intensely relaxed about the fact that no day since then has seen more than about 80,000 tests – it is not his fault if we were silly enough to imagine that 100,000 ‘a day’ meant every day.  It won’t have been his fault either that, even with substantially fewer than 100,000 being conducted every day, we have still had to send 50,000 tests to the USA recently to be processed.  So much for his promise of “capacity” for the promised number of tests in the days immediately before April 30th,  at a time when he clearly feared (correctly as it happens) that the target wouldn’t be met.   And what does Boris do when he realises that the 100,000 tests every day target isn’t being met?  You guessed it: he just raises the target to 200,000 tests a day (no doubt forgetting that he fleetingly declared 250,000 as the target several weeks ago.)

If our government’s Covid-19 testing strategy leaves a lot to be desired, its communication strategy, in so far as there is one, has been even worse.  Boris  announced a grandstanding address to the nation at 7.00pm this evening to tell us what the Government’s exit strategy from lockdown is going to be.  This was greeted with a tart suggestion from the Speaker of the House of Commons that it would be a good idea if such statements were delivered in Parliament before being offered to the nation as a whole.  We have a very good idea, once again, about what he is going to say, because he went off-piste at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday and indicated that there would be some easing of the lockdown tomorrow.  This brought our brain-dead tabloids out in a rash of excitement with banner headlines the next day of the order of ‘Hurrah! Lockdown freedom beckons’ from The Daily Mail, and ‘Happy Monday!’ from The Sun.   Ministers had to spend the rest of the week rowing back from any suggestion that there would be a major change of policy.   

With a sunny bank holiday weekend predicted, what did the tabloid editorial boards think would happen, other than that people would assume there wouldn’t be a problem with ignoring the soon to be lifted social distancing restrictions?  The police were predictably appalled.  With well over 30,000 families mourning their loved ones on that ‘Happy Monday’ for The Sun, any increase in infection rates over the next few days should lie heavy of the consciences of Boris and the tabloids, were they to boast such inconveniences. Why address the nation on Sunday evening, after the governments of Wales and Scotland have already made it clear that any tweaking of the lockdown will be pretty minimal? Quite simply, one suspects, because if Boris made his announcement either in Parliament or at his daily Downing Street press conference people would have the opportunity to ask questions.  And Boris isn’t good at answering questions.

Barack Obama has described Donald Trump’s federal government’s response to Covid-19 as a ‘chaotic disaster’.  The same could be said of our government’s response by influential people in UK, but it won’t be.  As a nation, the UK is far too deferential.  Reporters from the quality newspapers and broadcast media have been coming in for flak just for asking awkward questions at the daily Downing Street press conferences.  The official opposition knows that it needs to be extremely careful not to sound conflictual, rather than bi-partisan, in its approach to the government’s handling of the pandemic.  The general attitude seems to be: ‘Don’t be nasty to Boris.  He’s just been in hospital, and he is doing his best.’  Never mind that ‘his best’ has also been a chaotic disaster responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands and thousands of people.   Even allowing for instinctive deference being a national characteristic, I still find myself wondering how on earth, in view of the number of deaths, the testing debacle and the communication deficiencies, it is even remotely possible that public approval ratings of the way the government has handled the crisis can have steadily risen by 17% as the disaster has unfolded.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Sunny Sunday

May 3rd

The headline BBC news item this morning was based on an in-depth interview Boris granted to The Sun on Sunday in which he gave an account of his recent two-day sojourn in the Intensive Care Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.   Unlike Icarus, I don’t on principle go anywhere near The Sun, of which more later, so I have to rely on the Independent’s report about The Sun on Sunday’s report about what Boris said.  He is reported to have asserted that he had to be “forced” to go to hospital because he was feeling “pretty rough”, and described the experience as a “tough old moment” during which he had kept asking himself: “How am I going to get out of this?’’  A colloquial interpretation of the stiff-upper-lipped public-school-speak understatement would go something along the lines of: “It was a bloody nightmare.”  As I am quite sure it must have been.  

Two other quotations from the reported interview drew my attention.  The first was Boris’s statement that “They had a strategy to deal with a ‘Death of Stalin’ – type scenario”.  This answered, at least in part, the currently frequently asked question as to whether his experience might have changed him.  Prior to his illness Boris was inclined to think of himself as Churchill rather than as the dodgiest member of the Yalta triumvirate.  The second was his comment that when he became so ill that there was a 50-50 chance that he would have to be intubated and put on a ventilator ‘they were starting to think about how to handle it [his death] presentationally.”  Leaving aside the obvious point that it certainly wouldn’t do “presentationally” to point out that the Prime Minister would have brought his own death upon himself by recklessly ignoring how dangerous the virus was to which he had succumbed, I found myself wondering whether this concern about how his death would be handled “presentationally” might not reveal a subconscious recognition that his entire adult life had been largely “presentational”.

For inveterate UK media watchers – and lockdown provides far too much scope and temptation to join that sad subset of people who should, but currently can’t, get out more often – Boris’s decision to bestow his musings on The Sun on Sunday is telling.   The Sun on Sunday and its daily counterpart, The Sun, are the UK’s leading Sunday and daily newspapers when it comes to sales, to the tune of around 100,000 copies each more than their closest rivals from the Mail stable.  The Sun, with its unspeakably contemptible coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, also leads so far in what has always seemed a highly competitive tabloid rivalry to see who can produce the most shameful demonstration of what journalism shouldn’t be.  Right now I wouldn’t, however, bet against it, or one of its rivals, plumbing even lower depths with nakedly racist treatment of Megan Markle.   

The Sun’s banner-headlined version of the “The Truth” at Hillsborough, which exonerated the police from their responsibility for the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans by depicting them as a bunch of drunken football hooligans who picked the pockets of their crushed their fellow fans, and urinated on police trying to save the lives of the victims, was extraordinarily influential all the way up the political food chain to Margaret Thatcher.  It took 23 years, during which The Sun was boycotted in Liverpool, for the truth to be uncovered by the Hillsborough Independent Panel and publicly acknowledged that the original story had been a tissue of lies fed to the newspaper by the South Yorkshire Police. The Sun finally printed a fulsome apology in September 2012, acknowledging that ‘the people of Liverpool may never forgive us for the injustice we did them.’  The people of Liverpool haven’t forgiven them; The Sun is still boycotted in Liverpool.  But Boris Johnson is the last politician I can think of who would ever have been concerned about a media outlet carrying lies.   Any Tory leader must, by definition, keep on the good side of Rupert Murdoch the non-British media baron who owns the The Sun.  All five Liverpool constituencies voted Labour in the 2019 General Election with a minimum of 70% of the votes cast, so where the Tories are concerned Liverpool is a lost cause.  And why would Boris ever consider overlooking 100,000 potential members of the Boris Adoration Choir for the sake of a mere matter of principle?