June 8th 2021
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which comes first, a racist and xenophobic electorate that chooses a Prime Minister and government in its own image, or a corrupt and xenophobic Prime Minister and government whose racism and xenophobia give license to a section of the electorate to put its own worst instincts on public display? Sunday’s edition of The Observer (6th June) provides enough material across a range of fronts to make an ultimately futile engagement with the latter conundrum an attractive alternative to sinking into a profound depression as one wades through the morass. The journalism, as always with The Observer, is excellent; the material they have to write about is in many cases a putrid swamp.
The edge of the swamp is entered on page two with an article featuring Gareth Southgate’s (the England football manager) articulation of his team’s determination to continue to ‘take a knee’ before England’s Euro matches as a gesture of the team’s solidarity in rejecting the racism to which England’s black footballers are all too often subjected, regardless of the booing from English ‘fans’ sufficiently racist to boo their own team. A Tory MP, one Lee Anderson, has expressed himself so incensed with the ‘taking of the knee’ that he will boycott future games. That will at least result in one fewer Conservative in the crowd whose non-racial credentials are, at the very least, questionable.
The all too predictable follow-on from an article featuring racist booing is the first of a number of articles featuring our unhomely Home Office. An article by Mark Townsend (p.8) points to the likelihood of 300k EU nationals soon finding themselves the victims of another Windrush-type scandal as decisions about their ‘settled’ status are delayed by the Home Office beyond its own arbitrary deadline. Townsend quotes Pierre Makhlouf, assistant director of Bail for Immigration Detainees, saying: ‘The ability of the Home Office to refuse entry, to detain and deport people is the Brexit experience that unfortunately all EU nationals are being forced to learn, now that they are being treated in the same way as non-EU nationals.’ It is hardly surprising in these circumstances that the hospitality industry and hospitals in the UK, dependant for so long on EU workers, particularly nurses, should find themselves desperately short-staffed. So dire is this wholly predictable situation that even Tim Martin, the chairman of Wetherspoon’s pub-chain, as delusionally enthusiastic a supporter of Brexit as one could have found, has called on the government to create a visa scheme specifically for EU workers (‘It’s a crisis. I’ve spent all week trying to recruit chefs, but they don’t exist,’ Joanna Partridge and Richard Partington, p.54.)
A little further in, one sinks into ‘Global Britain’s’ Foreign Aid cut, as one finds Mark Lowcock, who used to be a permanent secretary in the Department for International Development before Johnson’s government demonstrated its enthusiasm for International Development by doing away with the Department, talking about the famine in Ethiopia which, he pointed out, is the worst famine problem the world has seen for a decade: ‘Last year, the UK reported to the UN the provision od $108m of humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia. This year they have so far reported $6m’ (p.10). In Ethiopia alone, never mind the other countries where the cuts have decimated humanitarian programmes, thousands and thousands of people, mainly children, are going to die as a direct result of this decision.
Michael Savage’s article goes on to quote Caroline Noakes, a former Tory cabinet minister, saying: “The cuts to UK aid represent just 1% of what the Chancellor is borrowing this year. But they mean funding for the UN’s reproductive health programme has been cut by 85%. The UN says this aid would have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths.’ Why is the government doing this? Not because it needs to try to claw back the costs of the pandemic but, quite simply, because it is convinced that its electorate wants to see ‘charity’ beginning at home. The government obviously doesn’t tell that electorate how many global babies and young children ‘Global Britain’ is going to allow to die in the process. Two equally excoriating and depressing articles by Andrew Rawnsley (p.45) and David Davis (p.51), the former Foreign Office minister, point to the extent to which the decision tarnishes what international reputation the UK has left after Brexit.
If one has the stomach to continue to wade through the swamp, it isn’t long before one comes to David Conn’s special report titled ‘A Death on Moss Side’. This is a detailed report into what looks very much to an outsider as a travesty of justice whose essence is conveyed in the trailer: ‘In 2017, 11 Manchester teenagers were jailed for a total of 168 years under controversial legislation for their part in a killing. Now, as three of them launch an appeal, supporters claim the police investigation and the subsequent trials were riddled with racism’ (p.21). The teenagers were found guilty and sentenced under the ‘joint enterprise law’ which David Conn elaborates on a follows: ‘A controversial legal mechanism, it holds that all participants in a violent incident, however minor (their) individual actions, equally guilty if they are found to have intentionally “encouraged and assisted” anybody who committed the most serious violence.’
A couple of years after the formal ending of apartheid in South Africa, when I was Principal of the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, I was telephoned by the man in charge of the local prison who told me that he had two prisoners, one a member of the ANC and another a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party who had been members of the university Grounds staff but had been convicted of murder and sentenced to very long prison terms. They had both been present at a flare-up of the conflict between those two bitterly antagonistic parties when a man had been murdered, but both, he told me, had been model prisoners and there had been no evidence that either had been directly involved in the violence. They had been convicted on a ‘common cause’ basis, i.e. under the South African equivalent of ‘joint enterprise’ law. He told me he would release them if I was prepared to re-employ them. I consulted the Vice Chancellor and we had very little hesitation in agreeing. Both resumed work and didn’t murder anyone. If the system in South Africa could set about trying to shake off its racist preconceptions after apartheid, perhaps the swamp can be drained here too – to borrow the words of the ultimate swamp-dweller.
Perhaps, but only perhaps. The last word here should be given to Nick Cohen whose trenchant article provided The Observer with some of its last words, (‘Scroungers, lefty lawyers … the Tories duck scrutiny by inventing enemies’, p.52): ‘You cannot say anything coherent without generalising, and so, and to generalise, the British will lose their rights to challenge an over-mighty and underwhelming state because they hate foreigners more than they love political accountability.’ Perhaps the only way out of the swamp is for a leader of Nelson Mandela’s stature to reboot our national morality, and either win over our Tory cheer-leading gutter press or shame it into silence. But there aren’t many people of that stature around.