The security threats of the 21st. century, not least the war in Ukraine, have revealed how naïve we were to think that the interlocking and interdependence of economies was an unqualified good thing. Countries sharing complex economic relationships with each other, we supposed, would not go to war with each other. The global market would be the infrastructure of a peaceable, prosperous world. And if that were true then Fukuyama might have been right about the triumph of liberal capitalism. Images of bombs smashing into Ukrainian supermarkets, hospitals and homes shattered such hopes and the illusion of Fukuyama’s dream.
The triple threat of the pandemic, of accelerating climate change, and of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, have peeled away protective layers of naiveté, short-sightedness and ignorance to reveal the abiding cruelties, inequalities and moral indifference of a fractured world. Russian barbarism has caused a geopolitical earthquake with its resultant economic tsunami. The West found no difficulty in occupying the moral high ground but then had to run for help to the oil rich Middle East. Suddenly all sorts of deals with former pariah State, Iran, became possible. And also time to pay Mohammad al-Salman al-Saud a call, coinciding with the execution of 81 Saudi citizens most of whom had the misfortune to belong to the wrong branch of Islam. These days it takes a strong dose of realpolitik to keep the lights on.
In Britain the poor will be worst hit. This is a political choice. But what happens when the tsunami reaches the shores of the Mediterranean? Lebanon for instance. Lebanon buys 80% of its wheat imports (Egypt 85%) from Russia and Ukraine. According to IFAD, the United Nations Fund for Agricultural Development, recent spikes in the cost of fertiliser have added 30% to food prices. Lebanon is deemed 22% ‘food insecure’, meaning almost a quarter of the population already don’t get enough to eat. Hunger is about to increase and add to existing problems. Already children from poorer families are on one meal a day, often depending on being fed at school.
I am involved with Caritas Lebanon, one of the country’s biggest NGOs, working with the poor and in education and so aware of the country’s accelerating descent into poverty after the end of its civil war in 1990. Peace was achieved by creating a complex political system that shared power between the different religious and ethnic elites, a form of confessionalism. This arrangement turned out to be a formula for government entropy leading to State failure.
The disarray got worse in the wake of a banking crisis in 2019 followed by the pandemic. The Lebanese pound and thus wages lost 90% of their value. Within a few months professionals such as teachers and doctors, suddenly pauperised, began to leave the country in droves. Meanwhile Lebanon remained home to thousands of refugees from Palestine and other countries as well as receiving over a million people fleeing Assad’s Syria.
As if Lebanon’s problems weren’t great enough, in the early evening of 4th August 2020 a warehouse containing an estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s main harbour. Ammonium nitrate is used in fertiliser as well as in explosives. A second and massive explosion which registered as far away as Cyprus immediately followed. A quarter of a million people were displaced, thousands wounded and hundreds killed as the blast spread over two miles from its epicentre in the harbour to the northern part of town. 85% of Lebanon’s grain silos were blown to bits and not replaced. Now the nearest port for storing imported grain – and sunflower seed for cooking oil - is Tripoli in the north. Lebanon has only about three weeks of wheat reserves. A Lebanese Carmelite priest told me that on a visit to a Beirut school at lunch time he heard one boy ask another what his mum had put in his sandwich. The boy opened it to show him. There was nothing in it. As prices soar, for many there won’t even be bread.
Rapidly deteriorating living conditions in other countries are likely to spark civil unrest. Egypt and Somalia immediately come to mind. The impact of sanctions on Russia will affect the Central Asian Republics. For example, 31% of Kyrgyzstan’s GDP comes from remittances sent by migrants working in Russia, the collapse of the rouble will have dire consequences for their families. In Africa where food makes up the bulk of expenditure for vast numbers, people will be hit three ways: pandemic, climate change, and the knock-on effects from conflict in Ukraine.
Globalisation has obviously not done away with nationalism, its beliefs in a mythical past, and accompanying ideological blinkers. Look at our forthcoming Nationality and Borders Bill and the mind-set behind it. Look at the P&O’s ruthless substitution of foreign labour on pitiful wages for British labour with tolerable pay, a snapshot of global corporate practice. We seem unable to deal with the debilitating inequalities that globalisation has failed to remedy, many would say increased. Worse, economic connectedness has failed to create international solidarity in the face of the greatest of the 21st. century threats, climate change. For governments as for individuals the immediate seems inevitably to banish the demands of the long term. Given the urgency of reducing carbon emissions, when is our response to Russia’s threat to oil and gas energy supplies going to take into account the impact on climate change targets set in Glasgow?
Putin may posture with his finger on the nuclear button, our finger has to be on the domestic and global reset button. World leaders are in denial about the magnitude of the change now essential. Quite literally it can’t go on like this.
Delia Smith’s football team, Norwich City, may not win many matches but she has won my heart. Asked about what she thought of the Home Office demanding visas for Ukrainian asylum seekers on the Radio 4 Today programme (12/03/2022), she compared it to “coldly slamming the door in their face”. The government’s response had been “dreadful” and “unforgiveable”. Delia’s conclusion was we “need leaders who want to care for people”. We should “rid ourselves of dictators and inept leaders”.
In more measured words but with a similar basic critique, on 9 March a group of London leaders of Churches in UK, including Archbishop Nikitas, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Great Britain, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformed, Salvation Army and others wrote to the Prime Minister: “Surely, we feel compassion today for Ukrainian mothers with young children, the elderly and those with disabilities, who have undertaken dangerous and arduous travel, and look to the United Kingdom with hope and are now reaching out to us in Ukraine's greatest hour of need. How can mothers with young children, the elderly and the disabled, who have travelled a thousand miles be expected to complete online application forms in a language foreign to them? Times of war require swift action and flexibility, the easing of normal procedures and the removal of complex bureaucratic obstacles that can easily turn hope into despair and resignation”.
The government response to such widespread criticism was to hoist the moth-eaten flag of National Security. The Home Office couldn’t possibly allow Ukrainian grannies, or mothers with babies, beyond the White Cliffs of Dover without visas and proper checks. The FSB and GRU (former KGB and Russian military Intelligence) would be infiltrating agents disguised as traumatized women. Really? Are we in a lie-of-the-month competition with Putin? Nobody seemed to wonder why 27 other countries, the EU, didn’t block entry in this way and, by inference, didn’t care about their own national security.
We are watching the unsavoury instincts of Priti Patel at work endorsing the Home Office bureaucracy and its ability, by intent or chronic mismanagement, to create a hostile environment for those without a multi-million dollar account in an off-shore bank. Government Ministers have had weeks to make contingency plans for managing refugees from Ukraine and only bestirred themselves under public pressure. Three quarters when polled wanted government to be hospitable to the Ukrainians. As Delia said, commenting on Government’s behavior, “That’s not what Britain is”.
I wanted to believe Delia and turned to one of the most prolific, informed - and kindest - of writers about what Britain once was, Peter Hennessy. His new book, A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After COVID sounded as if it might help. It did. In short, a factual account with plentiful tables and statistics of the rise and fall, impediments and accelerators of our national commitment to the common good. Hennessy takes the October 1942 Beveridge report with its five giants to be slain, Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness, and tracks the struggle to slay them, its reverses and successes, the slings and arrows of outrageous politics, up to September 2021.
“A ready-reckoner way of capturing the statutory paving of the 1940s version of the duty of care” Hennessy says, “is to chart the legislative flow”. He lists two wartime coalition government Bills, the 1944 Education Act and the 1945 Family Allowance Act followed by Atlee’s 1946 National Insurance Act (to give security from ‘cradle to the grave’ to use Churchill’s 1943 phrase), the National Health Service Act, Housing Act, and New Towns Act. Town and Country Planning came in 1947 and, in 1949, the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act, providing greater access to justice for all. The achievements of the Atlee government were prodigious. Nye Bevan believed the indirect benefit of the NHS providing “the best that medical skill can provide” was that Britain would become “more wholesome, more serene and spiritually healthy”. It became a talisman national for national identity and wellbeing.
A duty of care informed social policy in subsequent Conservative as well as Labour governments. Hennessy has a soft spot for Harold MacMillan (Prime Minister 1957-1963), more housing, more schools, the welfare state safe in his Conservative hands. It was the economic crisis of the 1970s and the Thatcher years, 1979 – 1990, that brought in a new political culture in which a duty of care began to disappear from policy. From 2010 its absence was palpable.
From 2010, and part of the Coalition Government’s austerity measures, a 21% Ministry of Justice reduction in funding for Court and Tribunal Services, as well as legislation reducing the scope of civil and family legal aid meant that access to justice was undermined. The backlog in the Crown courts was c. 40,000 cases pre-pandemic and is now 50,000. Whilst living conditions have improved impressively since the Second World War, amongst Beveridge’s giants, Disease, Want and Squalor still show signs of life. From 2020-2018, the number of people in temporary accommodation rose by 74% (for children 69%). According to Professor Michael Marmot, life expectancy outside London fell for women. Thanks mainly to austerity and COVID, with 5.8 million people (the population of Denmark) now on a huge waiting list for treatment and elective surgery, we are more anxious today than serene about the future of the NHS and of our country. Nor did BREXIT bring much serenity and spiritual health. Rather, in Hennessy’s words it “contributed powerfully to a general coarsening of our politics and our national conversation, leaving us in a diminished and psychologically poor state by the time the virus struck”.
What is to be done? Hennessy warns that his manifesto for the 2020s needs a new consensual politics that would ‘run with the grain of our better past’. He speaks of five shared ‘tasks’ for a new Beveridge plan that he hopes could be adopted ‘after COVID’: social care, social housing, technical education, preparation of the economy and society for Artificial Intelligence, combating and mitigating climate change plus a sixth, ‘refreshing the UK constitution’. I would add a seventh: extending government’s duty of care beyond British citizens to refugees.
Putin’s war looks like adding at least four million to the total of Europe’s refugees needing care. Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine as the book was published. If anything it makes Hennessy’s social market prescription for a united, spiritually healthy UK, a kinder Britain, more urgent but demanding even more financial backing to realise it. I think he would agree. For he starts his first chapter by quoting Beveridge: “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. And as R.H. Tawney, whom Hennessy also cites, said in 1917, we need to think in terms ‘not of the least that is essential but the most that can be achieved’.
See TheArticle 16/03/2022
Good Intelligence helps prevent wars and also helps win wars. Intelligence failures quickly get into the public domain but successes are usually slow to emerge. We are unlikely to learn soon how Western Intelligence agencies came to an astonishingly accurate assessment of Russia’ intentions towards Ukraine.
It looks as if there must have been leaks from within the Kremlin about Putin’s plans but why did his coterie of kleptocrats not realise that Russia couldn’t behave in Europe as it did in Chechnya and Syria without a massive reaction? Or were Putin’s advisers simply too frightened to tell him? What was the Intelligence agencies’ understanding of Putin’s psychology? And what was President Biden’s thinking behind his remarkable, detailed revelation of Putin’s intentions?
Analysing the intentions of paranoid autocratic leaders, dictators, is notoriously difficult. It requires HUMINT, agents in place close to the head of State, privy to his thinking. In November 2021, the US Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, visited NATO headquarters to share growing suspicions that Russia was planning to attack Ukraine. After the Iraq WMD (weapons of mass destruction) fiasco in 2003, and the failure to predict how quickly Kabul would fall, there was a degree of scepticism.
By February this year the US, and to a lesser degree British Intelligence agencies, must have had telling IMINT (Imagery Intelligence), clear satellite photographs of troop build-ups and SIGINT, decrypted communications between military and diplomatic personnel, as confirmation of their worst suspicions. A week before the invasion, President Biden took the unprecedented step of revealing - to the day - when Russian troops would move in as well as Putin’s plans for a ‘false-flag’ operation designed as justification for invasion. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Adviser, had earlier described Putin’s intentions as ‘catastrophic’. It seems likely that this assessment was the reason for several contacts with Beijing seeking Chinese pressure and mediation to avert the Russian attack.
Biden’s tactics must have taken most Intelligence agencies, built on secrecy, outside of their comfort zone. But modern hybrid conflicts include the important element of ‘information war’, a Russian speciality, and Putin was clearly pushed off balance. He began talking ridiculous and counter-productive nonsense about Ukraine being led by drug-dealers and neo-Nazis, and putting the Russian Federation on high nuclear alert. Meanwhile good spying had given the USA time to develop a strong package of sanctions and to unite NATO member countries around it.
Cambridge Professor and MI5’s official historian, Christopher Andrew’s The Secret World: A History of Intelligence is a doorstop of a book covering everything from advice to rulers in the third century BCE Sanskrit Arthashastra, to US Enquiries into 9/11 and the 2004/2005 Reports into the Iraq WMD intelligence failures. But it is not just an Intelligence encyclopaedia. It has recurrent themes as well as the overarching recommendation to learn from the past and have a long-term perspective on the future.
The Secret World’s first lesson is that the critical issue determining whether Intelligence, once gathered, is used intelligently is the attitude of the Head of State or Prime Minister on whose desk Intelligence briefings land. At the beginning of the Second World War, Stalin, for example, was more preoccupied with the Trotskyite threat than that of the Nazis with whom he’d formed the German-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was more suspicious of Churchill than of Hitler. He dismissed repeated warnings from different agents and sources that a German attack was imminent.
But Churchill was an Intelligence addict. He had good reason to be and supported Britain’s predilection for deception, cryptanalysis (code-breaking) and counter-intelligence. ULTRA, the product of wartime cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park who cracked Axis ‘ultra-secret’ coded communications, exposed German agents sent into Britain and replaced them with agents of their own. In the words of J. C. Masterman, the MI5 chairman of a committee running deception operations, ‘we actively ran and controlled the German espionage system in this country’.
A second lesson is the danger of group-think and with it unconscious neglect of cultural difference. The West’s enemy in the 1970s was Communism. There was a blank within US National Intelligence Estimates when it came to religion. The danger posed by unrest in Iran was therefore attributed to communist subversion. The USA feared a Lenin might emerge, not a 78 year-old Ayatollah living in exile in Paris. A 1983 report on the Iranian Revolution from senior advisers to the CIA Director is worth quoting at length despite its tortured institutional prose: the basic problem was “to recognize qualitative change and to deal with situations in which trend, continuity and precedent were of marginal, if not counterproductive, value”.
A third insight is that rivalry between different Intelligence agencies causes serious problems. Khaled Sheikh Mohammed’s and his nephew Ramzi Yousef’s 1993 truck bomb in the basement of one of the twin towers of the New York Trade Centre, meant that the Al-Qaida ‘file’ went to the – domestic - New York FBI and their particularly skilful Arab-American interrogator, Ali Soufan. But competition between the CIA and FBI after the Al-Qaida attack on USS Cole in October 2000 had disastrous consequences. The CIA, took over interrogation of Al-Qaida suspects from the FBI, and tortured them with the result that they clammed up. The different clues pointing to 9/11 held by the two agencies were never brought together. Potential leads to the highjack bombers were missed.
Professor Christopher Andrew was taught by the history don and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University in the 1980s, Sir Harry Hinsley. Hinsley had been a cryptanalyst at Bletchley Park and Andrew’s book doubles as a history of cryptanalysis through the ages. The Secret World, a world history, contains so much more than the last century of espionage. Sometimes the amount of detail is overwhelming but the effusive laudatory cover blurbs are deserved. It is a book to be taken slowly, one chapter a day, and especially illuminating given the Ukraine tragedy and our pressing current need to assess the geopolitical intentions of today’s totalitarian States.
See TheArticle 11/03/2022
“I’ve always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body”, Novak Djokovic declared a couple of weeks ago, back before the world changed on 24 February. Cartesian dualism is alive and well in Serbia you might conclude. Mr. Djokovic and Mr. Djokovic’s body are both in play here, the former putting things, or not putting things, vaccine to be precise, into the latter. In case we missed his claim to ethical probity, Djokovic, speaking in an exclusive interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in the wake of his deportation from Australia, stated that “the principles of decision making on my body are more important than any title or anything else”. He went unchallenged.
Amal Rajan, the BBC’s interviewer, persisted for some twenty minutes in probing why Djokovic wouldn’t get vaccinated against COVID despite the cost to his career as the leading star in the tennis firmament. For those not much interested in tennis celebrities it felt like an interminable wait for the real news. But it was – incidentally - a remarkable lesson in how modern ethics rest on the powerful illusion that each man is an island. That long twenty minutes illustrated how celebrity could highlight an unbalanced individualism: the denial of what it is to be a social being, a person whose character and personality are moulded by the social, economic, political and cultural factors which shape our choices. Djokovic seemed oblivious of all this. Nowhere was there any clue that the economics or national politics of elite sport cultivate an obsession with the body or how much Djokovic’s own way of thinking might be socially shaped.
Vaccinations reduce the spread of viral infection and do so most effectively when a high percentage of a given population are vaccinated. Individuals who decline vaccination undermine the protection vaccines afford to everyone. Neither Djokovic nor Rajan gave any sense that to choose to be vaccinated against COVID is to take action for the common good. Discussions about such choices need to be discussed within their social context not decided solely on individualistic grounds and justified by the right to freedom of choice. Though, to be fair, Djokovic did recognise a wider world which was “collectively“ (his words) trying “to find a best possible solution to end the virus”. In short the unchallenged premise of the interview was that moral choice resides in the atomised, autonomous individual deliberating with himself or herself and reaching an unchallengeable personal decision.
Freedom of choice is indeed important but it is also important to recognise how many of our choices are unconsciously collective choices, or, when consciously taken, should keep the common good in mind. Most immediately, it is what lies at the heart of the tragedy of Ukraine. We have watched a people who want to choose their government, who seek to associate for a variety of reasons with other democratic nations, attacked by a dictator using overwhelming military force to impose his will. And we have seen the power of Ukrainians’ collective choice to resist despite the costs and danger to the integrity of their bodies and their individual lives. A stark contrast with Djokovic’s mind-set.
At no point in the interview was the purpose of freedom of choice directed to anything other than the professional interests of Djokovic himself - winning world class tennis matches if he chose to play them. Djokovic assured Rajan that he was willing to sacrifice opportunities to play if they clashed with his individual freedom of choice. There was no indication that anyone might expect him, or any other sporting celebrity for that matter, to consider the wider implications of this stance, his position as a role model and therefore what choice might in this instance serve the common good.
One of the main engines driving the economic growth we have come to expect is the never-ending diversity of things we are offered and which we choose to buy, experience, dominate and own. But this engine has made the amoral freedom of the market the template for thinking about ethical choices and has driven us along a track leading to climate catastrophe. It is almost as if the act of choosing has become the good sought and can be dissociated from the good chosen.
The fashion industry has long ago learned how to manipulate choice and stimulate collective imitation. What you shop for and wear becomes a major expression of identity. And recently BBC listeners have heard that a ‘vibe-shift’ is taking place in which, you can guarantee, a new form of ersatz freedom and self-expression will get the tills ringing with cash extracted from youth.
While their shared choice for many Ukrainians is a matter of life and death and national solidarity, freedom of choice for others, including Djokovic, seems to provide a trivial statement of who you are and want to be. Tellingly, so unbalanced is the contemporary focus on the individual that the faults of collective thinking and action are more readily perceived, labelled and challenged. We have special words available to describe shared choices and those making them: the crowd, the mob, group-think, ‘institutionally racist,’ and with them associated behaviour, impulses to loot, to violence as in ‘joint enterprise to murder’, to discriminate, and to ‘trample on liberal values’.
We are not atomised individuals taking moral decisions in a vacuum. It’s a grand illusion. We are social beings formed in community by our relationships, beliefs and experience. Since we value freedom of choice highly, it is well to be aware of the range of factors that shape our judgement and decisions. Such consciousness would enable us to evaluate how they undermine or contribute to the common good. But to be aware how these factors influence us requires living in a society in which accurate information is available, where there are spaces for deliberation about what constitutes the common good, and with all participants equally valued. That is what democracies aspire to achieve and totalitarian regimes fear.
See TheArticle 01/02/2022