‘Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth by falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages’. That’s Samuel Johnson in November 1758 writing in his The Idler essays for the London Weekly about the growing role of journalists - ‘news-writers’. You wonder what he might have made of Putin’s news media.
‘The first casualty of war is truth’, our terse twentieth century version of Johnson. The aphorism applies to the coverage of the war in Ukraine both through what is generally omitted, what is told and untold. The ethical principles underlying journalism are accuracy, impartiality, independence, accountability, humanity and truth. They are notoriously difficult to abide by - sometimes career-threatening - in the face of strong public opinion, particularly during war when a degree of self-censorship is prudent.
Take just two examples of Western reporting. The Russians claimed they were promised in the 1990s that NATO would not expand eastwards. Denials were reported uncritically. But US National Security Archives opened in December 2017 reveal Gorbachev was indeed assured in 1990-1991, not only by US Secretary of State, James Baker, but by Thatcher, Kohl, Mitterrand, Major and Bush senior that there would be no NATO expansion. This litany of assurances – Baker's “not one inch east” - came as quid pro quo for Gorbachev’s consenting to German unification within NATO. Promises to Russia were reneged on in response to understandable pressures from Central and Eastern European countries plus lobbying by the six major US armaments corporations led by Lockheed Martin. In 1996, Congress passed legislation enabling expansion, the NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act.
The former ambassador to the Soviet Union and doyen of foreign policy within the State Department, George Kennan wrote in the 29 June 1997 New York Times with extraordinary prescience: “Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era. Such a decision may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking”. As Putin was consolidating his power between 1999-2004, ten countries, four bordering Russia, joined NATO.
NATO’s expansion does not justify Putin’s criminal invasions of Ukraine nor his war crimes, nor his tyrannical rule. But it does provide him with a public rationale for attacks on his southern, sovereign neighbour (his imperial fantasies seem to have taken over now). As long as acknowledging the truth of what Kennan wrote back in 1997 about NATO expansion incurs strident media accusations of supporting Russian aggression, we are not going to learn from history - though perhaps we never do.
The second example of constrained reporting has profound implications for ending the war through a peace agreement and ceasefire. Russia’s fantasy of blitzkrieg and swift overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-western government failed. In March 2022, a month after the invasion, as a result of Turkish mediation, Russia and Ukraine appeared on the verge of finding a negotiated end to the fighting. Key elements were Russia's withdrawal to its pre-24 February positions in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality, that is excluding any foreign bases or troops from its territory – even on joint exercises. The US, UK and other countries were to provide joint security guarantees promising to intervene in the event of Ukraine being attacked again. Crimea would be left on the back burner with an understanding that within the next fifteen-year years, while seeking a resolution, neither party would use military means to change the territory’s current status. The disputed Donbass area would also be the subject of separate negotiations.
According to Milan Rai writing in Peace News 2 April 2023 Ukraine abruptly withdrew from the negotiations because of the mass murder of civilians and prisoners of war by Russian troops in Bucha, a town just 25 kms west of Kyiv, and as a result of pressure from the US and UK (Boris Johnson made a special visit to Kviv on 9 April and refused to sign the proposed special guarantees). A few days later Russia pushed into the territories it had recognized as independent in eastern Ukraine.
Maybe events simply made steps to reach a just peace impossible. Maybe Putin was negotiating in good faith. The Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett who was engaged in the negotiations believed so and thought there was a 50/50 chance of success. We just don’t know. The point is that the two parties were at the negotiating table once discussing a plan that might have worked, but talk of negotiations now gets treated as, at worst, a betrayal of Ukraine or, at best, naiveté. Yet the chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, not known for his naiveté, was talking openly of negotiations in November 2022. He compared the trench warfare in eastern Ukraine and its appalling casualties with those of the First World War and received a customary backlash for not promoting outright victory for Ukraine.
In a comparable way, Pope Francis has been widely criticised for maintaining the neutral position required for promoting dialogue, and very recently for praising the cultural wealth of ‘great Mother Russia’. Yet on 2 August 2022 the Vatican had fiercely denounced the Russian invasion: “the interventions of the Holy Father Pope Francis are clear and unequivocal in condemning it as morally unjust, unacceptable, barbaric, senseless, repugnant and sacrilegious”.
Both Pope and President Volodymyr Zelensky find themselves caught between contending expectations and demands. On the Pope’s side, taking up a clear moral, so partisan, position versus a traditional papal role as neutral peacemaker. On Zelensky’s, the burden of rising Ukrainian casualties and openness to negotiation versus retaining his international and national support by a position of nothing- but- outright- victory and maintaining his decree banning negotiation. To pursue the former, with a consistent 90% approval rating for pursuing the latter, would be political suicide.
The intensity of the ground artillery war is prodigious. Both sides are beginning to run out of ammunition. Stockpiles of 155 mm shells held in the West are very low. The UK has resorted to sending Ukraine depleted uranium tank-busting shells believed to have caused illness amongst civilians and troops in Afghanistan. The US is supplying cluster bombs known to mutilate children and to take years of clearance post-war. The Russians are reduced to seeking ordinance and weaponry from North Korea.
On 12 September this year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke of Zelensky needing to lift his decree banning talks with Russia as a first step towards negotiations, saying that, if Ukraine was unwilling, it was for the USA to make it happen. Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, a leading member of the Sant Egidio community based in Rome, which successfully mediated the civil war in Mozambique, has just returned from Beijing. His mandate from the Pope is to "support humanitarian initiatives and the search for ways that can lead to a just peace" in Ukraine. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, indicated his willingness to have him come to Moscow on Friday.
Are we approaching another March 2022 moment of mutually felt weakness that might make steps towards dialogue, negotiation, a ceasefire and an agreed peace possible? For the sake of the Ukrainian and Russian people dying in Putin’s war let’s hope against hope we are.
See TheArticle 16/09/2023
After the USA, Turkey with its 775,000 strong armed forces is militarily the most important member of NATO. It is also the NATO member most strategically located sharing extended land borders with Syria, with hostile Kurdish militias, notably the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and with Iran all the way from Azerbaijan to Iraq, as well as having sea borders in common with Russia and Ukraine. Sales of natural gas, oil, grain and arms mean Russia has a moderate but significant dependency on export revenue from Turkey. Not surprisingly Putin has been wooing Erdoğan for many years.
Following its annexation of Crimea in early 2014, Russia’s military intervention in Syria from September 2015 added to the complexity of Turkey’s foreign relations. On the one hand, the USA was supporting Kurdish anti-Assad militias seen by Obama as the most effective force against ISIS in the region, but by Erdogan as a major threat as the PKK conducted separatist attacks in south-east Turkey with heavy casualties. On the other, the Crimea for Turks evoked the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. The local remnant of its indigenous Turkic ethnic group, the Tatars, persecuted and deported by Stalin, opposed the annexation and were suffering as a result. Erdoğan felt obliged to speak out against Russia’s annexation but avoided denouncing Putin, refused to join sanctions being imposed by most of NATO’s members and supported Turkish government officials whose shady deals with Iran had been breaking US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
But if Russia and Turkey are in a marriage of convenience today, the failed 16 July 2016 military coup - which caught Erdoğan on holiday in the resort of Marmaris - should count as the moment Putin slipped on the engagement ring. Erdoğan narrowly missed being seized and overthrown but emerged from the crisis stronger than ever. He took advantage of enhanced public support to brand Hizmet, the Gülen movement, an extraordinarily successful and moderate Muslim organisation, as coup planners and terrorists, the perfect opportunity to destroy a powerful internal Islamic competitor with whom Erdoğan had once been allied (See ‘Erdogan’s Victory: The Decline of Democracy’ 30/05/2023). Hizmet is generally seen as pro-American and anti-Iranian. Fetullah Gülen, founder and inspiration of the movement, lived, and still lives, in exile in the Pocono Mountains near Saylorburg in Pennsylvania. The US refused Turkish requests to extradite him. The USA was also a little slow to forthrightly condemn the coup. Russia wasn’t. Erdoğan’s first foreign visit after the coup failed was to Moscow.
Putin proceeded with his courtship in October 2016 by returning Erdoğan’s visit coming away with an agreement to provide Turkey with natural gas courtesy of GAZPROM, the Russian majority state-owned giant gas corporation. A new pipeline costing some $11.4 billion dollars, would cross the Black Sea from Russia’s Krasnador region to Kiyiköy north of Istanbul. TurkStream was subsequently extended into the Balkans to sell Bulgaria and North Macedonia gas bypassing Ukraine and Romania. Erdoğan and Putin inaugurated flows in January 2020 in good time for anticipated US sanctions after Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
Weapons play no small part in cementing Russia’s relationship with Turkey. American Patriot missiles deployed at Turkey’s Gaziantep 5th Armoured Brigade Command to protect the Turkish-Syrian border were withdrawn in October 2015 amidst rising US-Turkish tensions over US training and arming Kurdish guerrilla forces. In 2017, a year after the coup against Erdoğan, and after protracted and failed negotiations with Washington to supply the Raytheon Patriot missile system, Erdoğan stunned NATO by signing an agreement with Russia to buy its S-400 air-defence system. According to Maximilian Hess in Economic War: Ukraine and the Global Conflict between Russia and the West, Hurst 2023, by way of response the US dropped Turkey from ‘participation in its programme to develop the F-35 fifth generation fighter jet’, on the grounds that Russian missile technicians would get access to the technology in the state-of-the art plane.
President Trump initially blocked additional retaliatory sanctions under the US 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) but then implemented them in December 2020, during his last chaotic days. A better offer of Patriot missiles was made. The game continued with Turkey seeking more S-400 batteries from Russia. As Economic War says: “Russia had successfully developed its partnership with Turkey to increase its energy leverage over Europe through the TurkStream pipeline, and the West’s sanctions had failed to halt closer Russian-Turkish cooperation”.
During April this year the foundations were laid on the Turkish coast north of Cyprus for the Akkuyu nuclear power station, costing some $20 billion and comprised of four units of a Russian designed nuclear reactor. A joint enterprise between a subsidiary of the Russian State corporation, Rosatom, and a Turkish company, when finally constructed the reactors will provide 10% of Turkey’s energy needs. Talks on the building of another nuclear power station are taking place between Turkey, Russia and South Korea.
These snapshots of the relationship between Russia and Turkey, taken partly from Hess’ scholarly book (almost 40% of it made up of footnotes, bibliography and index), give some idea of the intense economic war that accompanies the fighting in Ukraine. As a new multi-polar global configuration of states comes to birth with the formation of new trading blocs, the hegemony of the US-led ‘West’ wanes. And as it does, the limited effectiveness of sanctions becomes more apparent. The US Treasury hasn’t even been able to grab Graceful in Germany, a yacht in which ‘Putin had an interest’. It was spirited back to Russia two weeks before the invasion of Ukraine and appropriately renamed Killer Whale.
The dollar retains its global power, but few surpass Erdoğan’s ability to manoeuvre between shifting alliances playing one side against the other. Visitors to Turkey, lured by promises of accessible dental treatment – a remarkable advertisement on London Overground trains – cheap holidays and expensive Catholic pilgrimages to Ephesus, might ponder Erdoğan’s choice of strategic partner on the world stage. At the least he is giving pragmatism a bad name.
See TheArticle 29.08.2023
What has gone wrong with Democracy and with our democracy here in Britain? Line up Trump and his followers, Putin’s Russia, Orban’s Hungary, Poland’s Law & Justice Party, the Brothers of Italy as well as Johnson’s popularity, rise and fall, and you can detect a certain commonality, a plausible story about the decline of democracy and the spread of authoritarian populism. That’s why Anne Applebaum’s slim Penguin volume “Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and The Parting of Friends”, first published in 2020, received rave reviews and an immediate reprint.
A savvy journalist - liberal in the US sense - Applebaum weaves friends’ political choices, and their subsequent changed relationships with her, into a wider analysis of the populist drift in Europe and the USA. And she does it very well. Twilight of Democracy provides an analysis of the fragmentation in the last decade of Centre-Right politics and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism. We have become accustomed to some of the proposed causes: the polarising role of social media, its deliberate manipulation to promote anger and resentment – and so more clicks - the ‘cascades of falsehood’, the conspiracy theories, ‘the desire to belong to a superior community’. Applebaum explores such explanations. But there is a further ‘why?’ lurking unexplored behind these factors.
Applebaum’s focus is inevitably on widespread generic causes given the great differences between the recent history of the different countries featured in her book. There is very little about the role of specific changes in countries’ political economy, the impact - both social and personal - of striking inequality giving rise to emotions and a mindset attracted to radical authoritarian change. Sometimes, as in the distinction she makes between ‘reflective’ and ‘restorative’ nostalgia – those who miss the past but don’t really want it back and those whose ‘cultural despair’ drives them to radical action to restore it - there are ideas that demand more consideration. A broad-brush approach can hide more than it reveals.
In Britain where a minority live very well, according to the Joseph Rowntree Association 4.1 million children, one in three in 2022, were living in poverty. Some 17% of households currently say they cannot afford any food at least one day a month whilst others are extraordinarily rich. Many must skip meals. But the coming years promise steady growth in fine dining restaurants. Such inequality generates anger and resentment that can be manipulated. Those so disadvantaged are offered scapegoats: immigrants, the EU, the ‘woke’ elite.
Some nine years ago, Fraser Nelson in the Spectator made telling comparisons between living standards in Britain and in the different US states. We came in at 49th out of 50 just ahead of the poorest state in the Union, Mississippi which has the lowest health, education, development and GDP per capita in the USA.
Will Hutton in a sobering opinion piece in the 13 August Observer writes about the consequences of persistent low productivity and low growth having become the norm. “Regions like the West Midlands, particularly economically linked to the EU, have been disproportionately badly hit”. National debt has trebled in the last twenty years with 10% of government tax revenue now going on debt servicing. And Hutton cites John Burn Murdoch (Financial Times 11 August) that if you remove London from average British per capita GDP, it falls by 14-15% to below that of Mississippi. By way of comparison removing the economic hub of Munich from German figures produces only a 1% overall drop. Britain has entrenched poverty, geographical as well as class-based, and outside London is, according to Will Hutton, “scarcely better off than middle-income developing countries.”
Unlike many accused of gloom-mongering – and I must sometimes include myself – Hutton seeks to tell the truth however gloomy but also to suggest remedies, in this instance enabling government to think beyond balancing the national books. He recommends splitting the Treasury into an Office for the Budget and an Economic Strategy Ministry, strengthening the UK Infrastructure Bank and British Business Bank and pushing our national £3.5 pension pot into supporting enterprise and risk. Net Zero and Levelling Up, he argues should form a central part of a national strategy for ‘leveraging’ new industry and technology. In the past we could ride out financial crises thanks to established trading relationships, first in the Empire and then in the EU. But now, Hutton writes, we do not have an “empire or the EU anchoring our trade. We are alone”.
Our particular “twilight of democracy” has its distinctive shadows. I remember years ago the then Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Patrick Kelly, saying to me: “I can’t see how democracy can work with a Press that misinforms. How are people to take informed decisions?” His point is even more pertinent when people are trapped within social media silos.
Applebaum is right to devote several pages to Johnson’s and Cummings’ malign works and pomps. We do share aspects of a common political pathology with other countries. But many of our institutions - most notably our legal system, our universities, the BBC and structures of local government - have held up despite attempts to undermine them and turn the public against them. Government erosion of our NHS, threatening now to crumble into a second-rate service for those unable to afford insurance or fees for private care, has not diminished the public’s attachment to the idea of health care and treatment free at the point of delivery.
But we have not dodged the bullet. The wounds to our society and economy, at least to date, are severe but not lethal.
See TheArticle 17/08/2023
Dear Mr. Sunak,
Now you are taking a well-earned holiday in California I hope you will use the time and space to think about your legacy. Legacy thoughts normally come at the end of a Prime Minister’s period in office but, to be realistic, the polls consistently point to your exit next year. The unfolding debacle since the BREXIT vote is unprecedented – much exacerbated by the pandemic and Putin’s war - and most voters have suffered.
Less than a year after being elected as an MP you wrote in February 2016 to your Richmond, Yorkshire, constituents: “It has been by the far [sic] the toughest decision I have had to make since becoming an MP, but on June 23 I will vote to leave the European Union”. In the game of political snakes and ladders over the last seven plus years, it proved a good career decision. From Parliamentary Private Secretary in 2017 to junior minister in 2018, you began a rapid climb up the political ladder that led to 10 Downing Street. You were one step away in 2020 as Boris Johnson’s Chancellor. And in 2022 you got there. But your BREXIT gamble no longer seems quite so rewarding.
The voices that preceded and promoted BREXIT, abandoning any attempt at truthful communication with the public about what really faced us on leaving, set the trend for politics. Now, with the greatest crisis ever facing the world, uncontrolled climate change, threatening human civilization, neither Conservative nor Labour leader dares describe the gravity of the situation, its consequences, and tell us what must urgently be done.
The nub of the problem is the way our interconnected challenges are presented. The diverse channels of information, notably the right-wing Press and social media, and our complex demographic divisions, the unsaid ‘well, we’ll not be alive to see it’ versus ‘why are you sacrificing our future for electoral gain?’ lie behind today’s gas-lighting and irrationality. What better example than the 28 July Daily Mail editorial framing political conflict as “the concerns of ordinary people” versus “the virtue signalling obsessions and orthodoxies of the woke elite”. According to Britain’s most read newspaper this inglorious binary is the way we should interpret the dilemmas we face.
Are the forty or so backbench Tory extremist MPs, notably the anti-Net Zero group led by Craig Williams MP who breathe down your neck, ‘ordinary’? OK, perhaps more ‘ordinary’ than you, a multi-millionaire - that of course is a vulnerability for you. Is worrying aloud by grandparents about the world they and governments are bequeathing to their children and grandchildren a ‘virtue signaling obsession’? Or is it a rational and moral human response to an avoidable global catastrophe, an awareness that Government must wake up and act urgently?
‘Woke’ was originally African-American slang to describe waking up to the need to do something about racial prejudice and discrimination. It now extends to virtually any view that discomforts the comfortable. Combating climate change is very discomforting. The changes required to mitigate its consequences are even more discomforting. So, hey, how about politicising the whole thing and perhaps saving some Conservative seats.
A Labour Mayor is doing something effective about improving air quality? Time to speak out on behalf of polluting vehicle-owners. Or should that be ‘ordinary’ polluters? It worked in Uxbridge. The Labour Party is committed to a serious level of investment in solar, wind and wave renewable energy. So let’s sign off on a hundred or so licenses for coal and gas drilling in and around Britain, but not let on that we currently export 80% of our production. Tell the public it's about avoiding costly imports in the future, though keep quiet that wherever the source – and that includes the remaining North Sea oil and gas – the energy companies will be selling on international markets at an internationally determined price. And boosting their prodigious profits. Clear blue water between the Parties.
As the Tories in Uxbridge kept saying the least well off will suffer the most from measures to protect the environment, not adding that only if such measures are accompanied by effective poverty alleviation will necessary changes in the way we live become acceptable to the ‘ordinary’ voter. The truth is that transition to net zero could be made far less painful if an unprecedented priority were given to renewables; we see this beginning to happen in the USA where significant state spending and focused scientific endeavour to stop global warming are supported by government. Your modest beginnings funding carbon capture have been applauded but they do not fit into a vision of necessary and beneficial economic change, rather a fantasy vision in which the need for radical change is eliminated.
When BBC News leads on Nigel Farage’s Coutts bank account with apocalyptic warnings from leading climate scientists and the UN secretary-general coming second, something has gone very wrong with our national priorities. We had intimations with Michael Gove’s dismissing experts who foretold tears before bedtime if voters chose BREXIT: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. Then came the Covid anti-vaxxers peddling conspiracy theories about the medical profession. Now we have climate scientists dropped into the ‘woke elite’ bag.
Is it too difficult for you, Mr Sunak, to tell the public we face a global and therefore a national emergency, and then talk to the other Party leaders with the aim of agreeing a joint position on the way forward?Your legacy, as a Prime Minister without a personal electoral mandate, could be that of a man who read the signs of the times, rose to the occasion, and by acting decisively on climate change defeated the current national helplessness. Get rid of those advisors who, given their head, would turn you into Trump-lite. Or history will see you as the man who frittered away the vital, fast-vanishing time left to rescue the planet, leaving you a trivial footnote to thirteen deplorable years of Tory rule.
See TheArticle 04/08/2023
The Court of Appeal ruled on 29 June that Rwanda was not a ‘safe third country’ and deporting asylum seekers there was unlawful. Given this judgement the drafters of the Illegal Migration Act might be complimented on their foresight in the wording of the bill’s title. The Act has been called unworkable, ‘morally unacceptable’ (Bishop Paul McAlennan) and ‘amounting to an asylum ban’ (the UNHCR). Its contents in their lack of human empathy could have been generated by AI. In the words of the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Sarah Teather, to “deny sanctuary to people who need it based on their mode of arrival is grotesquely cruel”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared he will achieve what he calls his five ‘people’s priorities’. The fifth reads: “We will pass new laws to stop small boats, making sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed”.
Last year some 90% of the boat people who reached the UK sought asylum. By the beginning of this year only 3% of them have received an initial decision from the Home Office. More than 135,000 asylum applicants were awaiting a decision, many of them in hotels paid for out of the UK aid budget; 89,000 of them had been waiting for more than six months. This is the context within which the Prime Minister has chosen to back this bad bill. Is he serious?
Sunak excuses the draconian contents of the Illegal Migration Act on grounds of compassion. 56 people, 11 of them children, are known to have drowned trying to cross the Channel since 2018. He argues that the people smugglers’ business model will collapse if would-be migrants believe they will be sent to Rwanda. If there were a well-funded special unit in the National Criminal Agency (NCA) dedicated to the arrest of these criminal gangs, if there were adequate accessible safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to get here, his compassion argument might carry conviction. If migration policy is compassion driven, why has the Conservative Party in the Commons voted down Lords amendments to the bill containing such provisions?
The Conservatives believe that their bill is a direct response to the democratic will, or, at least, the will of voters in the Red Wall constituencies who want to see an end to small boat crossings. And Kent County Council as well as Dover genuinely are overwhelmed because so few councils around the country are willing to ‘burden-share’ (and most of these are Labour Councils) - a microcosm of the European Union’s predicament.
But just how popular is the Illegal Migration Act? How many people are thinking this harsh action is not our idea of British values? In the House of Lords we were hearing voices speaking for another, kinder Britain: Lord Dubs, who before the Second World War was brought to Britain on the kindertransport, concerned for the needs and protection of unaccompanied children. Then there was Baroness Mobarik, who aged six accompanied her family from Pakistan to Glascow, speaking alongside David Walker, the Anglican Bishop of Manchester against government attempts to weaken limits on the detention of immigrant children and pregnant women. Isn’t the welcoming of Ukrainian refugees, in which we take pride, more in keeping with what we want Britain to be?
The under-appreciated Upper House of Parliament - without veto power - is doing its job, holding government to account, scrutinising its legislation and trying to make the bill less bad. Between 27 April and 10 July, peers worked on 20 pertinent, important and compassionate amendments. A large cross-Party group outvoted the Conservative peers on each of the amendments and sent the bill back to the Commons. (There had also been also 16 Conservatives in the Commons who denounced aspects of the bill and abstained during its initial readings – including former Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Theresa May).
In the Commons, the Government rejected the Lords’ amendments but did make small concessions agreeing not to weaken limits on the length of detention and removing retrospective provisions which would have made the bill operative from its introduction by the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, on 7 March 2023. The bill was sent back to the House of Lords, and on July 12 they accepted the rejection of their amendments. After deliberations the Lords returned the bill to the Commons with nine revised amendments - including two proposed by Tory peers. These sophisticated strokes in the Palace of Westminster ‘ping-pong’ were immediately and casually dismissed by the Immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, who said the Government did not plan to make any further concessions.
The Government, with only a few days left, badly wants to get its legislation through Parliament before the summer recess. For this reason, the House of Lords has a small amount of leverage though it is improbable the Government will change the Act in any meaningful way. Parliamentary Acts of 1911 and 1949, together with unwritten constitutional convention, dictate that the unelected House of Lords should not block legislation by the elected House of Commons – especially measures promised in an Election Manifesto. No such pledge on migration was in the 2019 Tory manifesto. Sunak persists in alleging that he is fulfilling a ‘people’s pledge’ responding to public opinion. The peers have done all they are entitled to do within constitutional convention to make this bill humane.
The Conservative majority in the Commons means we will be saddled with this deeply unpleasant legislation. The Act enables the Government to interpret international human rights treaties and refugee conventions in ways not consistent with the UK’s obligations. The Government’s excuse for this shabby populism is a variation on Margaret Thatcher’s ‘there is no alternative’, alleging that the Act’s many critics do not offer any alternative. Consistent with our current politics of empty promises and brazen untruths, this is a lie.
There is a broad consensus amongst Churches and religious communities, NGOs, refugee organisations, as well as in the House of Lords on what needs to be done, starting with the creation of new safe and legal routes and serious investment in putting the criminal gangs behind bars. One of the Lords’ amendments - proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and garnering not a single Tory vote - was a call for a UK-led strategic ten-year multi-lateral plan for handling immigration compassionately whilst countering the impact of conflict and climate change on sender countries. The Labour Party acting as a government-in-waiting has produced a strategic package of proposals consonant with the Archbishop’s call. His amendment was amongst those voted down in the Commons.
The boat people who pay the people smugglers are desperate and aware of the risks. Nothing is quickly going to stop the small boats. Nor will the Rwanda threat, least of all if the Supreme Court agrees with the Court of Appeal’s judgement. Opinion polls suggest many voters now believe only a new Government, a new and competent Home Secretary and a reformed Home Office can reduce the number of small boats and deal humanely with refugees entitled to this country’s protection.
See TheArticle 17/07/2023
I don’t want to be a killjoy but the mirth with which signs of Jo Biden’s age are greeted strikes me as mindless. Good for a few laughs on Have I got News for You. Look, ha, ha, ha, he’s just tumbled over a sandbag. Trump at his rallies will be laughing along too.
“If the measure of a man is his gait, speech and memory for trivialities, then we are lost”, declared a letter-writer to the New York Times on 7 June summing up the dilemma facing uncertain voters in next year’s US Presidential elections. Will Jo Biden at 81 with some of the frailties of old-age be up to the job?
The criminal investigations besetting Trump have only reinforced his cult status with his core vote. Can he count on Biden’s support eroding under withering scrutiny in the hostile media? Will the Republican campaign gain traction with each stumble, fall and wrong word?
Biden is often compared on the geriatric scale to the elderly – a decade younger actually – President Ronald Reagan. Reagan, aged 72, touched an approval low of 35% in early 1983 but in 1984 went on to win a second term in a landslide victory against the lackluster Walter Mondale. Like the actor he was, Reagan played the folksy grandfather and the American public, used to TV stereotypes, responded positively. President Biden’s performance is less assured. His approval ratings have been bumping along at around 41% for many months. Recently there has been a small tick upwards.
For Biden a better comparison than Reagan would be with President Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) whose knowledge of politics ‘on the Hill’ and around State governors was legendary. Biden too has brought stellar negotiating and deal-making skills as well as long experience to the Presidency. He has a talented and loyal team around him, with an outstanding Secretary of State, Antony Blinken though Kamala Harris as Vice-President is unpopular. Already the list of Biden’s executive orders and bills is impressive.
US Congressional Acts are complex composites and US congressional representatives are far more independent of any Party discipline than their British counterparts. Biden’s skills operating within this difficult terrain, made even more difficult by a politicised Supreme Court, are demonstrated by his handling of his portmanteau Build Back Better plan, a ‘blue-collar blueprint’ to win back poorer workers. When key parts were blocked in the Senate (as was his proposed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act) Biden made acceptable amendments and changed the bill’s name to the Inflation Reduction Act finally signed off on 16 August 2022. The prices of prescription drugs were lowered, offering $800 annual savings on health insurance for 13 million citizens, and providing investment of $369 billion over ten years for climate change mitigation and clean energy use. Taxation was tightened and steps approved to reduce national debt. The Act built on the eye-watering, job-creating, $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill signed on 15 November 2021.
Also in 2022, Biden’s Safer Communities Act included, amongst other minor provisions, enhanced background checks on under 21s buying guns. A tiny step forward but the first successful – bipartisan - attempt at gun control legislation in thirty years. And a bipartisan agreement concluded this year’s ritual ‘debt-ceiling crisis’ - it stood at an epic $31.4 trillion - enabling Biden to sign the Fiscal Responsibility Act on 3 June. But none of this stream of legislation seems to have impressed an American public; the perception is that the US economy is faring badly with the blame falling on Biden.
Aware that his approval rating for his overall handling of the economy was only 34%, Biden delivered a much-prepared speech in the Old Chicago Post Office on 28 June. He sounded distinctly Keynesian presenting what amounted to aggregate demand as the most important driving force in the economy and promising government intervention to increase output. These are all echoes of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Contrasting Democrat economic policy with Republican trickle down, he rejected, “the belief we should cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations...that we should shrink public investment in infrastructure and public education”, thus summarising ‘Reaganomics’. Instead the economy should be built “from the middle out and the bottom up”. In a room festooned with ‘Bidenomics’ banners, an attack term used by the Republicans, the speech was a bold counter-branding exercise, not without risk.
Biden’s core electoral support lies amongst more educated and Black voters as well as to a lesser degree Latinos. US Catholics comprise a little over a quarter of the national vote. You might think the large Catholic community would support a fellow Catholic, and he did attract more support than Hillary Clinton, but about half voted for Trump in the 2020 Presidential elections. Despite an impressive record harmonising with official Catholic positions on climate change and social justice, Biden’s support for abortion provision will be an obstacle to deriving any significant electoral advantage from Catholic voters.
Americans largely agree with the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision of 1973 which divided pregnancy into three phases. Opinion polls suggest 69% of Americans think abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy, 37% in the next three and 22% in the final. The respected Pew Foundation finds that 76% of US Catholics think abortion should be legal in some cases/contexts but amongst Catholics who attend mass regularly there is a significantly higher level of pro-life conviction.
Biden has made several attempts to address this problem. At a recent fundraiser for his re-election campaign, he spoke approvingly of the tri-partite division citing the first three months of a pregnancy as a matter for the family, the second three for the doctors and the third for the State – to ban or to allow when needed to save the mother’s life. “I’m a practicing Catholic”, he said. “I’m not big on abortion. But guess what? Roe v Wade got it right”. Pope Francis, while avoiding direct censure, described the President’s religious position as ‘incoherence’. US policy on migration across the southern border is also contrary to Church teaching as well as the practice of many US Catholics of welcoming and supporting Latin American incomers. But for Biden to adopt the Church’s official moral stance would most likely deliver the USA into Trump-dominated Republican hands.
In a democracy you cannot win over voters without making some concessions to popular opinion. And if you cannot win over voters you cannot win elections and achieve even incremental change. J.F. Kennedy made it clear that his catholicism would not influence his conduct of the US Presidency. Biden seems more equivocal, with his piety far more up-front, but makes necessary concessions. And with a man like Trump trumpeting around the country ever ready to divide and destroy we should not too easily condemn Biden’s à la carte catholicism. Nor laugh him out of court for manifestations of old-age. As Bette Davis once said: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies” - especially if it’s being jeered at.
See TheArticle 03/07/2023.
One reason for writing history is the hope it will help answer contemporary questions. It rarely does. In the much-quoted words of the then US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson in 1962: “Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role”. Acheson’s question of post-imperial identity was addressed to the ‘British in Britain’. But he was not directly asking what being British then meant.
Stuart Ward in his recent Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain (Cambridge University Press) clarifies such questions in a scholarly book equipped with enough footnotes for several Ph.D theses. Ward’s almost five hundred pages of text focus in detail on shifting identities in the 1960s and 1970s. He writes in a thoroughly readable style making stimulating and unexpected connections, meriting Fintan O’Toole’s blurb on the cover: “essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the long slow waning of Britishness”.
Those living in Britain at the height of imperial outreach assumed that the inhabitants of that swathe of pink in my old school atlas, Victorian “Greater Britain”, shared, willingly or unwillingly, in their own imperial version of Britishness. But the peoples of the Empire were already at work making their own history and forging new national identities.
Identities are created by relationships, by cultural and material interaction and sometimes by appropriations. So how did the historical fate of ‘overseas’ Britishness - which we often forget - influence the different expressions of being British over the years and bring us today to this post-imperial island kingdom with its four less than cohesive nations? And is the government’s post-EU aspiration to adopt a world role, ‘Global Britain’, a fig-leaf barely hiding a ‘Little England’ wrecked by populism but hoping for the best?
Never losing its central focus, Ward’s book highlights two other features that accompanied Britishness in the 20th century. First is the persistence of what he calls ‘patrimonial racism’, cultural and inherited, shaping White relationships with different peoples fostering social exclusion, behind immigration bills. Second, addressing the wave of de-colonisation in the 1960s, he discusses the telling transition from appeals by the colonised to values perceived as British to appeals based on universal human rights and directed at the UN as a world forum.
But the diverse patterns of change encountered in the then Dominions, West Indies, India, Africa and Asia defy any simplistic analysis of changing allegiances. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru remained passionately committed to Indian national identity after the huge inter-religious massacres attendant on Independence – strangely not mentioned anywhere in the text - and, of course Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa was ruthless. By way of contrast, advocacy of a strong British identity by Australians and New Zealanders persisted into the 1970s, only partly related to threats to trade triggered by Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973. Another revelation – at least to me - was how much Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s catastrophic Suez adventure may be attributable not just to his ill-health but also to pressures at the time from a significant right-wing faction of the Tory Party. The populist nationalism of Tory Brexiteers comes to mind.
Ward is adept at providing detailed examples illustrating his main themes particularly the racism beneath the asserted British values. In Vancouver in May 1914 there were mass protests when the Komagata Maru carrying 200 Sikhs, fellow subjects of the Empire intending to settle in Canada, attempted to dock. The ship, chartered by the enterprising Gurdit Singh, after several months at anchor was forced to return to Calcutta. In June 1948 the aptly named Empire Windrush brought 492 West Indians to Tilbury docks on the Thames. Trusting in British values they had expected to be treated as fellow Britons. Some 70 years later, hundreds drawn from what became known as the ‘Windrush generation’ - arrivals from the Caribbean 1948-1973 – were detained and 83 deported to the West Indies, their legal rights denied.
Ward also makes much of the sad story of Sagana Lodge in the Nyeri district of the Kenyan Central Highlands, to illustrate the mystique of royalty in delusions of fading imperialism. When Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip married in 1947, the Colonial Government of Kenya built them a rustic lodge as a wedding present. If royalty could have several residences in Britain why not one in Greater Britain as an expression of the throne’s supranational character? The answer was that the Mau-Mau soon became active in the area. The Lodge was only occupied once by royalty - at the handover during the couple’s visit to Kenya in February 1952.
The transition from Empire to Commonwealth got underway with Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London in 1944. India refused to join a body called the ‘British Commonwealth’ so the Queen came to preside over ‘the Commonwealth’, a de facto loose association of disparate but notionally equal countries including at that time Dominions with Governors-General appointed by the Crown.
Britain’s formal name, the UK is an abbreviation of the clunky ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. It used to be ‘and Ireland’ before the Irish Free State became a self-governing Dominion in 1922 and then in 1949 an independent Republic outside the Commonwealth. UK has turned out to be a useful name as it gives British diplomats a seat near the USA in international gatherings.
If you hold a UK passport, you have ‘British nationality’. Though Scotland’s nationalist Independence movement has scarcely been dented by the SNP’s financial shenanigans, and Wales has a strong national identity expressed in the Welsh language. There is no doubt you are ‘English’ while watching the Ashes, or, listening to John Major in 1993 quoting George Orwell while struggling with his Tory Eurosceptic rebels and evoking a fantasy unchanging England: a ‘solid breakfast and gloomy Sundays...old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’. The changing add-on ‘and Northern Ireland’ across the Irish Sea has given British governments an almighty identity problem both pre and post BREXIT.
Ward tackles the ‘Troubles’, the resurgence of the IRA in the 1960s, within the wider context of human and civil rights, de-colonisation globally, and protest against different forms of exclusion and discrimination. He describes the way the police force of Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) repeatedly treated peaceful Catholic, nationalist, civil rights protests with excess force. And how protests were dogged by Ian Paisley’s followers, opening the door initially in 1970 to retaliatory IRA violence followed by 3,500 deaths in years of sectarian violence and terrorism.
Today the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), founded and led by Ian Paisley in 1971, shares Gibraltar’s unbending stance from 1964, ‘British we are, and British we stay’ (the caption on one of those stirring old British Pathé news items). But as the history of waning Britishness charted in Ward’s book indicates, it is not easy to describe what being British means in 2023. It remains an important contemporary question. Cambridge University Press ought to send the DUP’s current leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, a copy of Untied Kingdom to review. And perhaps we might find out the answer.
See TheArticle 21/06/2023
Turkey provides a unique example of the interaction between religion and politics. Recip Tayyeb Erdoğan, with his strong-man appeal to Islamic piety, won the Turkish Presidential election run-off at the weekend by 4% of the vote taking 52.1%. Kemal Kiliçdarğoglu with his promise of modern social democracy, had won only 44.9% of the vote in the first round, so stood little chance of overtaking Erdoğan with 49.5%. Fateful figures.
Two highly charged contending mindsets define Turkey’s national identity. Kemal Atatürk, a revolutionary nationalist who, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, founded the modern Turkish secular State in 1923. He was influenced by French laicité, an ideological commitment to keep religion out of the public domain, and achieve its complete separation from the State. For many, this is expressed as a passionate rejection of Islam in favour of Turkey’s 1928 secular constitution traditionally supported by the military. For others there is a no less passionate religious commitment but to a moderate, pious Islamic conservatism.
The US Brookings Institution wrote glowingly in 2002 that the AKP, Erdoğan’s Justice & Development Party which had just swept to power, “heralds democracy”. It seemed like a “new model” for the Islamic world. A year later, Erdoğan became Prime Minister. His development of a modern transport system, political flair and skillful negotiation of the deep nationalist tensions, while maintaining his espousal of Islamic values in the AKP, have enabled him to increase his power ever since.
Erdoğan’s religious appeal owed much to the phenomenal success of the Gulen Islamic revival movement that provided him with the cultural and religious credentials of Turkish Islamic piety and helped to attract pious voters. Inspired by Fetullah Gulen, a scholar and preacher, the movement prioritized modern education, understanding of science and a commitment to interfaith dialogue as well as traditional Islamic practice.
During the 1980s, starting with popular dershane, crammer schools, the Gulenists – calling themselves Hizmet meaning service – gained ground in the medium-sized towns of Anatolia. Those with money, the ‘Anatolian tigers’, invested in media and business forming the Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists. Nationwide, Gulenist-led universities and schools became a ladder into the civil service, judiciary, police and army. With a flat structure and a reputation for being secretive, Hizmet was accused both of ‘infiltration’ of the state structures and of becoming too close to Erdoğan, collaborating in his dismissals of secular opponents of the AKP. At trials, beginning in 2008, Gülenist prosecutors brought charges, some falsified, against some 275 key secularists, high ranking military, government critics and opposition politicians. By 1999, Fethullah Gulen had withdrawn from the fray to a ranch in Pennsylvania after a new Turkish government which aimed to restore the constitution’s secular principles put him in danger of arrest for ‘anti-secular activity’.
By 2012 Erdoğan was powerful enough to dispense with Hizmet’s blessing. Influential in the judiciary, the media, universities and schools and with supporters in some 160 countries, Hizmet was now a potential rival needing to be curbed. That October Erdoğan obliged Hizmet to hand over its cash-cow, the dershane schools, to the State. In February 2014 Hizmet members hit back by releasing tapes which provided concrete evidence of major corruption involving the President and his son. Erdoğan brazened it out and was elected President that August.
The key to survival as an autocrat is ruthlessness, luck and courage. A military coup got underway on the night of 15 July 2016 while Erdoğan was on holiday in Marmaris, south-west Turkey. He narrowly escaped capture, broadcast to the nation via a mobile phone held to camera in a TV studio, flew back to Istanbul, called his supporters out onto the streets and regained control. Over 250 people were killed and 2,200 injured. Here was his opportunity finally to take control of the army and destroy his old allies, the Gulenists, some of whom had joined the coup.
A disturbing feature of the coup’s aftermath, demonstrating the efficiency and depth of surveillance by the National Intelligence Agency was the immediate arrest of thousands of Gulenists alongside the coup’s secular military participants. A massive purge of civil service, police, armed forces, judiciary, media, universities and schools followed. Many were guilty of nothing more than a vague connection with Hizmet. ‘estoring democracy’, Erdoğan had seized the last pieces completing the puzzle of autocratic power.
A sorry story of not much import? No. Now that we perceive geo-politics as a struggle been democracy and autocracy the Turkish experience is a neon sign flashing confirmation that democracy is losing the global struggle.
Look at the post-Cold War record: Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya three tragic failures of intervention; Iran still in the hands of the mullahs; Russia triumphant in a devastated Syria and destroying Ukraine; Putin contemptuous of European democracies, the USA and international law; China with its terrifying surveillance society watching Ukraine as a dry-run for taking Taiwan; Narendra Modi’s discriminating against religious minorities; the army in Pakistan unwilling to accept Imran Khan’s attempt to reduce its power over the State. Sudan wrecked by two military factions. South Africa by government corruption. Just one hopeful sign in Brazil with its peaceful democratic transfer of power from Jair Bolsonaro.
There are two main possible reactions to Erdoğan’s adding five more years to his twenty in power. Firstly, realpolitik requires continuing efforts to keep Turkey, a NATO member, out of the expanding band of brother autocratic regimes around the world, notably Russia. Another imperative is continuing huge payments to Erdoğan, following a 2016 migration deal which is keeping nearly four million refugees (3.6 million of them Syrians) out of the EU.
Secondly, there is the utopian hope that one last push in the next elections in 2028 will remove Erdoğan, ending the imprisonment of opposition politicians, journalists and dissident voices, as well as removing government control of 98% of press, radio and television. But how realistic is this? Over half the electorate, not only in Erdoğan’s Anatolian heartland, feel he represents their values and hopes, and sustains their version of national identity. He represents strength amidst the fragility of their lives and their fear of repeating the chaos across Turkey’s southern and eastern borders.
Must foreign policy choose between these two visions of Turkey’s future? Between realpolitik and utopian? In a recent slim volume, The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power by Robert D. Kaplan, a US journalist who has served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, implies we need to embrace both. The tragic mind, he argues, experiences failure not as fatalism or despair but as a goad to greater understanding and as a prompt for the heroism of ‘acting bravely in the face of no great result’.
The tragedy of Kemal Kiliçdarğoglu and his defeated Republican People’s Party (CHP) is that however much he may understand the nationalism, culture and thinking of Turkey’s rural poor and of the working class in its medium sized towns – his talk of expelling the refugees - he does not speak to them and their condition convincingly. Erdoğan, more street-wise, plays on their heart-strings. No-one can doubt Kiliçdarğoglu’s heroism and bravery in facing a ruthless autocrat. There are lessons to be learned about navigating today’s multiple threats to democracy from the failure of Turkey’s Opposition.
See TheArticle 30/05/2023
Today about 27% of adults in the UK own a dog. We have over 10 million ‘best friends’ second per capita in Europe only to Germany. That’s an awful lot of hungry animals. UK spending on dry dog-food alone is estimated at over £0.5 billion a year.
The dog market boomed during COVID. You see more couples with three dogs when you would have thought two’s company. The top price paid to date, in 2021, for a Border Collie with exceptional shepherding skills is £28,000 – and prices have risen with inflation. But what price the unalloyed love and affection of a pet dog?
Crufts showcases dogs at their healthy glossy best. This year’s Best of Show was a perfectly groomed Lagotto Romagnolo, not a football coach from North Italy but a former ‘duck hunter’ now employed to find truffles, a fine example of canine labour flexibility. On a more mundane note, I was pleased to discover that the dog-show judges score dachshunds for ‘good ground clearance’. It is surely time to create a class of Professional Pets judged on their ‘petting performance’, an opportunity for great family dogs. My own contenders would be two Hackney residents, Solly a curly haired, gentle and cuddly Wheaten Terrier- Poodle Cross and Charlie, a Cavalier King Charles-American Cocker Spaniel cross whose love is measured by the number of excited circles performed to greet visitors and reproachful looks when he’s washed.
But Solly and Charlie’s social skills pale when set against the abilities of working dogs, from guide dogs, an integral part of their blind owners’ lives, to trained sniffer dogs. Police German shepherds and Belgian Malinois find mobile phone by detecting the TPPO, triphenylphosphine oxide, which stops the microchip in the sim card overheating. When after much running around tail-wagging and sniffing, a police dog sits down next to your suitcase, it is time to get worried. More difficult to pinpoint are explosive residues, there can be false positives. And then there’s trained dogs’ ability to smell out diseases. These dogs are public servants working in the canine public sector.
It seems extraordinary that animals so acutely attuned to human feelings, or so defined by human relationships, are descended from wolves. But you don’t have to be an evolutionary biologist to appreciate that this is where, with considerable help from selective breeding, our plethora of dog breeds began, from chihuahuas to greyhounds and Great Danes. Our current canine economy, how dogs fit into ways of making a living today, not least dogged devotion for sale, is a good starting point for understanding evolutionary dynamics.
How did wolves and our ancestral hunter-gatherers get together? Who made the first moves? Shared hunting is thought to have developed between 32,000 and 18,000 years ago. The first undisputed domesticated dog found with human remains was buried some 14,000 years ago. By the beginning of the Neolithic – the agricultural revolution – 12, 000 years ago, dogs were moving from a purely economic relationship with people to becoming companions.
One theory is that smarter, more enterprising, - more Thatcherite - wolves took the initiative, moved into hunter-gatherer settlements and became domesticated. Right now, there are foxes in London progressing from nervously raiding bins to entering kitchens in search of something to eat, and even one in Hackney who apparently without fear follows people walking home.
An alternative plausible domestication theory is that the hunter-gatherers initiated the relationship. Like wolves, hunting was central to their lives. Both wolves and men travelled in search of prey. Though sharing the hunt, taking advantage of wolves’ sense of smell to find prey and rewarding kills with cast off portions of the meat, could only have worked if the prey was no larger than reindeer. Wolves were a highly successful species but could not cope with the main prize for human hunters, the mammoth.
The canine economy is much more complex today. Fox hunting hounds baying under government restrictions retain the old skills whilst still generating a few jobs - not to mention class hatred. Greyhound racing for the working class has almost disappeared. But dog-walkers by the thousands have entered the service sector alongside child-care for busy professional households. There are grooming salons with dog accessories, dog educators and dog psychiatrists. A beloved pet should be both beautiful, fit, well behaved and well balanced. With so much reported loneliness the demand for a dog’s devotion is unlikely to diminish.
But the price of this unalloyed love can be high. Veterinary care is expensive. Anecdotal evidence suggests, contrary to good practice in human medicine, that too often pet diagnosis begins with costly testing such as MRI and CT scans only then moving on to simpler therapeutic trials with inexpensive medication. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons does have a code of ethical conduct, professional misconduct includes taking “advantage of your age and inexperience”. But, unschooled in diagnosis, who is capable of resisting the authority of the veterinarian and denying their beloved dog the suggested treatment? And how many people realise after hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds spent on preventing the unpreventable, and far too late, that the kindest way forward would have been to ‘let their pet go’.
Wolves by contrast are still unloved. Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t help their bad press. But there is something chillingly grand about them. They have not been subjected to ever more bizarre selective breeding. We don’t run after them with poo-bags. They don’t roll over to have their tummy tickled. They don’t sneak up to sleep on your bed or cover the sofa with hairs - at least not yet. “The Eurasian Wolf”, Rewilding Britain tells us, is “a vital top predator that can have a major influence on the landscape through influencing the behaviour of herbivores”. Quite so.
The canine economy has proved productive, innovative and adaptive. Dogs both as workers and pets have established themselves amidst economic and home life. Their emotional ties to families look likely to defeat the future capacity of AI. And on the whole, canine evolution hasn’t turned out all that badly - apart, that is, from those dogs facing the hazards of poor ground clearance.
The national emergency alert on 23 April was well timed. Many poor families with sick members have “a life-threatening emergency nearby”. We have reached a point where our public services are on the verge of collapse. We have become accustomed to the employed needing foodbanks. More widely, more insidiously, our political culture has become debased.
In the last five years, the Conservative Party has made two frightful choices of leader: Johnson and Truss. One after the other, they took forward the impoverishment of several million people placing the UK below other European countries by most economic indicators. Stark inequalities prevail, from health to housing to educational achievement.
We now have a Prime Minister who lacks a personal electoral mandate. Polls suggest that most people in the UK have no confidence in their Government. Or more worryingly, their lack of confidence extends to politics itself and to all politicians as agents of social harmony, justice and wellbeing. If Sunak has any concern for democracy and Britain’s future, he must call a general election no later than this Autumn. Here is a short list of the reasons why.
We are getting sicker and poorer. Our National Health Service is in intended decline. Speaking on a recent Andrew Marr show Sir Michael Marmot declared forthrightly: “If you had the hypothesis that the government was seeking to destroy the National Health Service....all the data that we’re seeing are consistent with that hypothesis” (a hypothesis he also described as “a sort of malicious undermining” of the NHS). Marmot is a distinguished Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. He has been an adviser to the Director-General of the World Health Organisation and this year was made Companion of Honour by King Charles. What might be the motivation for undermining Britain’s flagship institution?
Well space is being created for a developing market in healthcare. As the publicly funded service deteriorates, as waiting lists lengthen, as staff vacancies grow, those with money can, and do, ‘go private’. Current evidence suggests that we are heading for a second-rate NHS for the majority and private practice for those with the money to buy it. Private good, public poor, as the ideology goes. Look at dental treatment and social care to see where this takes us. As Sir John Major said in June 2016: “the NHS is as safe with them as a pet hamster is with a hungry python”.
Conservative governments have failed to take adequate action to curb rising levels of obesity, ignoring both the link between poverty and ill health and the crushing demand diabetes alone will make on the NHS. Implementation of legislation that would ban the advertising of food with high sugar, salt and fat content before the 9pm watershed, and two for the price of one offers, has repeatedly been delayed. The food processing industry and supermarkets are free to encourage increased consumption and thus profit. Such delays placate the Conservative Party’s libertarian faction favouring the private sector whilst rejecting government responsibility for the public good.
The government is refusing to address the crisis in our schools. Primary school class sizes are the largest in forty years. Schools are in budgetary crisis and in several fields of study unable to recruit teachers, not least in mathematics. It is typical of the Conservative practice of governing by unfulfilled announcement that in the continuing lack of maths teachers and of the salaries which might attract maths graduates into teaching, Rishi Sunak should now be sharing his daydream of maths for everyone up to the age of 18. But for parents if you have the money, there are always the public schools, or private schools or tutoring, to make up for any inadequacies in the underfunded State sector.
Democracy itself is being weakened. Major institutions that balance and inform legislative power, the judiciary and the law, the civil service, and the Churches, with the support of the right-wing Press are either ignored or directly attacked. The first steps towards US-style voter suppression are being taken. On the spurious grounds of voter identity fraud, for which there is no evidence, at the local elections this May voters will be required to produce a visual identity document. A travel pass will permit an old person to vote but not a young one. The old are more likely to vote Tory than the young.
Respect for human rights, a pillar of democracy, is diminishing. The civil right of citizens to vote is an expression of inalienable human rights defined in the European Convention of Human Rights - which the parliamentary Conservative Party wants the ability to contravene. There is also an assault on human rights and human dignity in the treatment of asylum seekers and economic migrants. Having made a shambles of our immigration procedures – we do not provide adequate channels for asylum seekers to enter the country legally - contrary to refugee conventions we criminalise those who arrive by non-regulated means of entry. The backlog in assessing asylum applications is as much the result of intention as incompetence. This hostile environment intended as a vote-winning policy in marginal seats is another step towards populist authoritarianism.
Government has a cavalier attitude towards food security. British farmers currently provide about half our food needs. Here is Liz Webster, chair of Save British Farming: “The Conservatives with their BREXIT messed up our trade. This also impacted our labour supply because it ended freedom of movement. It also removed the cap and food subsidies”. Informed comment from a sector that on the whole foolishly supported BREXIT. The Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Thérèse Coffey, was booed at this February’s NFU (National Farmers Union) conference. Minette Batters, NFU President, attributed food supply-chain problems to BREXIT. It was refreshing to hear the truth. British farming has been blighted.
Finally, we come to the genuinely existential crisis which threatens everyone and to which farming contributes: climate change. The Government has given itself permission to defy COP agreements including the spirit of COP26 held under British chairmanship. It has repeatedly caved in to lobbying by the fossil fuel companies including granting new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea. As a result internationally agreed targets for reducing carbon emissions in the UK, Net-Zero by 2050, will be impossible to achieve.
The Government is generating flurries of announcements to hide that it is treading water. After 13 years, Tory rule has run its course. It is tired. It lacks talent. The Prime Minister’s judgement of who should be appointed to his Cabinet looks increasingly questionable. Scandal follows scandal. Senior Government Ministers follow each other onto the back benches. The vocabulary of politics, increasingly influenced by social media, swings from schoolboy jibes to dog-whistles to misinformation that fact-checkers can reveal as such in minutes.
As a university lecturer in Nigeria, I learned a lot about corruption and heard many pithy expressions. Commenting on their own politicians Nigerians often said: “they no savvy shame”. Words that perfectly fit 13 years of Tory rule. The May local elections will give some indication of whether the public agrees. But most likely, despite predictable losses it will remain Party first, country second. We may well have to wait until the last moment, in the autumn or winter of next year, before the Tories finally savvy shame.
See TheArticle 27/04/2023