Just before the Brexit referendum I tried to adopt a hedgehog. My last sighting of a living hedgehog occurred a long time ago. It walked nonchalantly past my feet as I sat reading in the garden. Hedgehogs are cute but fast disappearing. I thought it would be good to have one around, and I owned an empty hedgehog house, a Christmas gift.
Ipswich Council prompted me to action by appointing a Hedgehog Rescue Officer. “No hedgehogs on the Rates”, you may protest. But even as government takes away their money, Councils have a duty to have regard to conserving biodiversity under the National Environment and Rural Communities Act (NERC) section 40 of 2006.
Googling Hedgehog Rescue affords fascinating reading. You are warned that not all hedgehogs want to be rescued. “Every rescue must be appropriate”. Some hedgehog rescues can be life-changing. Read for example the feel-good story, A Handful of Happiness: Ninna, the tiny hedgehog with a big heart. It sold 30,000 copies in its first month here in the UK, according to The Times, and has been translated into ten languages. ‘Inappropriate’ rescuing of hedgehogs will be increasing.
Concern about hedgehogs turns out to be widespread and popular. Rescuers abound. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society was founded in 1982. You can become one of its Hedgehog Heroes if you put a warning on your machinery about the danger of Strimmers. Their Hedgehog Heroes Roll of Honour is long and includes the Mole Valley District Council, possible clash of interests here surely, and Township Response Ltd. (Shropshire), possibly ex-SAS, plus several Golf Clubs.
In the midst of this happy googling, a google drop box popped up asking for my location. I hit the “block” button. Perhaps it was to get me on to the Township Response radar. Perhaps it was more sinister.
Undeterred, I applied to a rescue centre; a form arrived and I filled it in. Its preamble warned me that hedgehogs are free spirits. They roam widely and might never return. My hedgehog house might have only a temporary resident. Who could tell?
Humiliation was to follow my laborious and truthful application. I turned out not to be a suitable hedgehog adopter. I ticked the box for having hedges with holes in them and a large garden opening onto fields. I had never inappropriately rescued a hedgehog. But my house was within a mile of a major road and hedgehogs’ road safety record, though better than suicidal pheasants, is poor. And I had used a nasty toxic spray on ground elder in the garden once or twice. Despite a firm purpose of amendment, my environmental profile was for ever tarnished.
In these days of Cambridge Analytica, Google and Facebook hoovering up our data, I began wondering, if we had a second Referendum, what the Masters of the Internet might make of all this pro-hedgehog activity. Was I now in a special Hedgehog Lover (HL) category linked to being a) old and b) living in the countryside, therefore being a voter floating between Leave and Remain? Would they construct special Brexit messages for HLs?
You can imagine the early 2019 headlines in the Tory tabloids. David Davis will be quoted saying: “We’re taking control of our hedgehog population which is what the British people voted for.” “Liam Fox: Customs Union would stop Commonwealth Initiative on hedgehogs”. “Boris stands by extra £350 million for hedgehog rescue” appears on campaign buses and billboards.
The fear factor will likely raise its ugly head again. Item on TV news: “PM says EU behind Invasion of Russian Northern White Breasted Hedgehog”. Followed by a package with a Jacob Rees-Mogg voice-over denouncing Russian Erinaceus roumanus, at the front of the queue for emergency treatment in veterinary surgeries – (Latin makes them sound more threatening). Camera pans to sad, elderly British hedgehogs waiting hours for treatment, curled up in miserable balls.
We won’t have seen the last of foreign-planted fake news: RT radio will lead with “British PM ditching EU Hedgehog Directive”. Soon trending on social media will be “Porton Down poisoned Shropshire hedgehogs”, launched from the covens of Russian hackers, Trolls and Bots. Sergei Lavrov is filmed giving an orphaned hedgehog milk.
We may never know. Only the Lib-Dems believe British people should be asked again, once they know what Brexit means and its likely consequences. Meanwhile I’ll go on wearing my HL and proud of it badge and hope it shows what a really nice person I am.
Sorry to be prickly about our Masters of the Internet but that’s where they’re taking democracy and freedom of speech. Hedgehog Awareness week runs from 6-12 May. Yes, really. Hot on the tail of Amber Rudd’s Removals Targets Awareness week. And yes, there is no EU Hedgehog Directive. Though there is a commitment to biodiversity: two directives, one for birds and one for preserving habitats.
The Windrush scandal signifies more than Ministerial incompetence: it has revealed the shocking inhumanity of our immigration policy. How can we talk about British values when we deliberately design policies that negate the values of hospitality, compassion, solidarity and justice? So far so obvious for some, so contentious for others.
But where are the ethical principles going to come from that might guide us towards putting things right? The Christian tradition might be a good place to look. A helpful start would be to read: Fortress Britain? Ethical approaches to Immigration for a post-Brexit Britain, edited by Ben Ryan, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, from the Christian Think Tank, Theos.
Pope Francis believes that the human person and respect for human dignity should be at the centre of policy; that the State’s role in controlling immigration for the Common Good is legitimate; that host and immigrant have reciprocal obligations to foster integration within the life of a country. All long standing Catholic social teaching. But making relationship and compassion the priority, rather than keeping numbers down, a theme of Fortress Britain, does not harmonise easily with pressures on governments to create orderly and non-threatening immigration flows.
Public debate about immigration swings between an emphasis on economic and cultural concerns, both contested, and critiques of multi-culturalism or assimilation. Add on recent worries about terrorism. For example, we rely on foreign labour: in the NHS, to look after old people, pick crops, sell meals, dispense our daily coffee, and hamburgers, and so on. We need foreign intellectual labour as students, entrepreneurs and to contribute to research.
Or alternatively, there is evidence at the bottom end of the wage scale, that immigrants depress earnings, however much they contribute in taxes. More than a million Poles and EU migrants arriving in a relatively short space of time are suspected of taking our jobs and our housing. That said, unemployment is at an historic low of 4.3%, and it is our building industry and governments which created the housing scarcity and homelessness by failing to provide adequate accommodation for those on low income.
Our feelings about migrants and their children are contradictory. We hit the “like” button for Indian and Chinese take-aways, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, reggae bands, Lenny Henry, Sadiq Khan, and the Polish plumber who actually arrived on time and cured the leak. Then there is the Egyptian cardiologist and that very kind Ghanaian nurse who looked after a relative, the Bangladeshi corner shop down the road who always asks after her.
Or alternatively, we resent the noisy immigrant family in the flat above, Muslims wearing funny gear in the streets, cutting animals’ throats, failing the “cricket test”, people speaking languages we don’t understand on the bus, too many of their kids not speaking English in our children’s schools. With nostalgia for a sometimes imaginary past, we feel that we have lost something and suspect strongly they have taken it away and, for want of a better word, we call it our culture.
Immigration’s critics always frame it in terms of threat: loss of identity for the native population and unfair economic advantage for the immigrant. That is how many people think and talk about it. The ridiculous Brexit lie that we would soon be invaded by large numbers of Turks played on these anxieties. The appeal of “take back control” is that it allays anxiety about identity.
The irony is that immigrants, whether migrants or asylum seekers have experienced personal threat even more acutely, and the loss of their identity and culture back home. The migrants’ similar wish to make a decent living, have better lives, propels them to leave their countries. They are people who share the ambitions of those who are most hostile to them.
Every year over 32,000 migrants are held in our ten UK detention facilities, often treated as imprisoned criminals, deprived of liberty, and, as research by Theos highlights, experience debilitating loss of hope and psychological damage. This level of criminalisation is not unique to the UK. So unfair are Home Office processes that half of asylum applicants who are denied refugee status have their appeals upheld. Meanwhile they languish for months in a moral limbo, forbidden to work and made virtually destitute. This is not an accident, it is a matter of policy.
The Windrush scandal is not at heart a matter of a Home Office not fit for purpose, a chaotic bureaucracy disposing of Landing Slips. Nor a question of who amongst State officials can make the most abject apology, who knew what and when, a problem susceptible of cure by compensation and by changing the language from “hostile environment” to the more Orwellian “compliant environment”. Those are symptoms. The root problem is policy-making in a moral vacuum.
Given current universal denunciation of the treatment of the children of the Windrush generation, there is an opportunity to step back and engage in a serious reform of immigration policy, to create an environment in which both Minsters and civil servants opt for just and compassionate treatment of immigrants.
Hospitality means, at the very least, stopping forced destitution as a disincentive to migration. Solidarity means sustaining international aid so people are not forced to migrate for a decent life taking their skills with them. Justice means fair processes adjudicating status without rejection as default position, and without unreasonable demand for documents. So it demands sufficient trained and supportive Home Office staff well informed about countries of origin. Compassion demands drastic reduction in indefinite detention and time spent waiting for a decision, as well as action to address anxiety and resentment in poor host communities.
These changes would complement the compassionate work of many in civil society, particularly the faith communities and notably the Christian churches. It would not be easy and it would sadly carry some political cost. But after Windrush many more will see it as essential if Britain is to retain some moral integrity as a modern State.
The dinner was formal but friendly; the hojjat-al-Islam sitting next to me in Tehran was explaining how the CIA planned 9/11. He was an educated man, one rank below ayatollah. It was 2003. Away to the West in Iraq bombs were dropping.
My diplomatic skills had been tested to the limits over a long day of discussions with Shi’a scholars. Before I could stop, I heard myself say “Nonsense”. My companion’s response was a long fit of coughing. “I’m sorry”, he replied after a harrowing few minutes, “I was gassed during the war”.
The hojjat-al-Islam was referring to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein repeatedly used mustard gas, tabu, and later, another and newer organophosphate poison, sarin, on Iranian troops. At Halabja, he used it on his own citizens. By then Saddam Hussein was acting with impunity because Washington feared an Iranian victory.
In the early 1980s German firms supplied Iraq with an estimated thousand tons of precursor chemicals. As chance would have it, President Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, met Saddam Hussein on 24 March 1984. The same day the UN issued a damning report on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. The US restored diplomatic relations with Iraq a few days later alongside support: notably satellite intelligence and War Credits. When the “righteous power” of the US was marshalled against Syria’s chemical weapons, my dinner companion of 2003 came to mind.
I do not intend this reminder of unrighteous power past as a Putinesque jibe. After seven years of conflict the Syrian moral high ground is vacant. The governments of the USA, France and UK have just planted their flags on the moral summit. The dust has settled on three heavily bombed sites and the picture seems clearer. Such a circumscribed projection of power/symbolic intervention – presumably the storage facilities were empty, the research laboratories long since evacuated – represents progress. We want to limit the horror of war. To that end we deploy signals and understand symbols in its midst.
Recollections of Mr. Rumsfeld’s past diplomacy are only to give historical depth to an explanation why Iran was the dog that didn’t bark during the Allied attacks on Syria. Nor did it bark, at least not loudly, during the Trump Tweet-fest. A significant number of its citizens had suffered from chemical attacks themselves. The vast cemetery of the martyrs along the road to Ayatollah Khomenei’s mausoleum keep the memory of the Iran/Iraq War alive. More contemporary, Iran’s leaders have bigger fish to fry: the final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 20015 Geneva nuclear agreement, was, and is, under threat. And then there was the matter of the Israeli attack on 9 April on one of their Syrian drone bases with seven Iranian dead.
The Supreme Leader, Khamenei, true to character, called the Allied attack on Syria a crime and the USA, UK and French governments, criminals. Otherwise the Iranian government’s response was measured compared to the pantomime of Russian sabre-rattling and accusations. Though, as might be predicted, conspiracy theory ruled; many Iranians did not believe Assad was responsible for Douma. But the surprising official Iranian line that such acts would not benefit the USA in the region was the nearest Iran gets to constructive criticism.
It is now urgent that we build on the mutual advantage afforded by the Geneva nuclear agreement. The JCPOA is an outstanding multilateral diplomatic achievement. Iran, in its own view, has made risky and major concessions I met secular-leaning university teachers who felt Iran had a national sovereign right to develop its own nuclear deterrent. It was a matter of pride and of fear. Iran has several unfriendly States with access to nuclear weapons as neighbours.
There are only two ways of avoiding a nuclear armed Iran: either military strikes on nuclear facilities resulting in a major war, or the existing nuclear deal. And only US Secretary for Defense “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis seems to acknowledge this. The right-wing cabal that Trump is assembling around himself share his desire to wreck the agreement. On Iran Trump has strong Republican backing. Israel gets this message and Netanyahu will be tempted to authorise more major air strikes with incalculable consequences.
It is not easy to share Iran’s perspective on the world. Its judiciary and human rights record are deplorable. But, as everyone knows, the USA associates with other countries whose record is no better, saying it hopes that their human rights record will improve over time.
Iran exerts considerable influence over Iraq. It has several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases in Syria. Its pariah status, apart from vying for prominence in the Muslim world in opposition to Israel by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, is caused by expanding this defensive perimeter - creating supportive proxy forces. Yet Saudi Arabia has the same intentions in Yemen at no less humanitarian cost.
Iran today is a conflicted and politically divided society, more conflicted and divided than the USA. But it also has the potential for change. US policy currently undermines the Iranian progressives who need to see returns from the 2015 Geneva agreement, both economically and in terms of international acknowledgment of Iran’s diplomatic potential in the Middle East.
The people who gain most from the current US policy are Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the special Quds forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and their supporters. They see the Middle East as a site of struggle between the Sunni majority and Shi’a minority with the old enemy, the USA, on the Sunni side, Syria as key to national security. Along with undermining President Rouhani, Trump plays into this narrative. We are in trouble when it is a died-in-the-wool militarist, General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis who plays a moderating role in the White House.
To date, internationally, Iran’s bark has been worse than its bite. The Trump Presidency risks reversing this order of things with catastrophic results.
Popular perceptions of political leaders are rarely subtle; leaders are either the embodiment of virtue or of evil. In the last three days Winnie Mandela has joined the pantheon of African nationalism. The celebrations of her political life in Orlando stadium, Johannesburg, sealed a chapter in South Africa’s history and brought a unique female presence into a line of male heroes who date back to Nkrumah and Lumumba.
The word iconic is worn-out. An icon is not the familiar – and pretentious - way of describing a significant example. An icon is a pictorial representation of a powerful inner – spiritual – reality. Winnie Mandela was an icon of the struggle against apartheid. The inner reality of the struggle against apartheid was the heroism it evoked and the damage it did to so many.
The white South African regime with stunning cynicism described apartheid as “Christian nationalism”. A priest friend of mine once described it as “sin made visible”. To understand the meaning of structural violence, just study the apartheid system and its aftermath, the persistence of its inherent violence within civil society.
Nelson and Winnie Mandela achieved their status as heroes in very different ways. He believed and lived his own heroic myth in prison, as an absent, eloquent silence for 27 years. It fell to his wife to embody that reflected myth, to be the public presence, a symbol and a voice. And to suffer. For two debilitating decades, this she did with fortitude and bravery in the face of a brutal regime. She did not ask to play Penelope to Nelson Mandela’s Odysseus.
By the 1980s, though, the price of resistance had begun to show. Her inner strength and political judgement had become coarsened and hardened by alcohol and the pervasive violence around her in the townships where she lived. She was not alone in that.
Winnie’s association with the Mandela United Football Club, a group of violent and anarchic Soweto youth, was to begin the darkest chapter in her life. And one of the biggest sufferings Nelson Mandela experienced in prison may have been the very human one of being unable to fulfil the traditional role of husband and father. He could not look after his wife, or get her out of the country to recover. There were communications channels in and out of his prison and during the time of his house-arrest. He tried. But to no avail.
By the early 1980s, the situation in the townships had deteriorated. The regime had boosted its infiltration of the ANC and fear of informers was rife. Young people made accusations and alleged informers were necklaced with a burning tyre, a particularly horrible execution. The internal ANC youth movement, COSAS, had lost its leadership, arrested, imprisoned, sometimes killed by the regime. The ANC outside the country was stepping up its armed struggle. More and more township youth were engaging in anarchic resistance and killings. I saw one group at a funeral break away with the ferocity of a hunting pack and chase a boy. There was nothing to stop them.
The group of Church leaders with whom I worked, influential within the internal resistance, were extremely concerned and made strengthening COSAS with leadership training a top priority to bring the situation under control. But the only interpretation of one, often quoted, speech by Winnie Mandela was that she was blessing necklacing. The external ANC in Lusaka called for an insurrection. If it had taken place black youth, eager for combat, would have been massacred.
One of the illusions of both popular journalism and popular perceptions is that the world is made up of bad people and good people. No shades of grey here. You build them up and you knock them down. So two stories can be run about the same person. Demonology follows hagiography as night follows day. Brave new dawn Blair of 1997, deceitful, militarist Blair of 2007. Dangerous, rebellious Winnie to Winnie, Mother of the Nation. Saint or Sinner?
Winnie Mandela, a lonely female figure in the pantheon of African heroes, in death as in life, escapes such polarised treatment in the British Press. The memorial services in Orlando stadium are not a time for reflection on flawed humanity. But they could be a time to begin leaving the violent legacy of apartheid behind, as Nelson Mandela, freed at last, worked for until his death.
His story was typical of thousands of people. He had fled Turkey before police could detain him as a prominent supporter of Hizmet (Service), a moderate, pious and tightly organised Muslim movement that had attained considerable international outreach. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Hizmet a terrorist organisation after the failed military coup against him of 15 July 2016. It was set up by Fethullah Gulen in the late 1970s.
I suppose that makes me “a terrorist-sympathiser”, not because I supported the attempted coup, but because I support the many Hizmet members who didn’t support the military coup and played no part in it but are now persecuted.
He was sitting alone in the back of the restaurant. At first I didn’t recognise him, wrong man in the wrong place, a surprise. The last time I’d seen him was in Istanbul, a confident, smart and erudite journalist from a major media outlet analysing trends in Turkey’s politics, impressing the assembled academics. Here in London he seemed diminished, bereft.
The process of seeking asylum as a refugee had already taken him eleven months; under British regulations he was barred from getting a job. Although remarkably stoic, the impact of loss was detectable both on him and on the Turkish colleagues who soon joined us for lunch. It was bad enough being a journalist and political analyst, but being also a so-called Gulenist qualified you, with near certainty, for arrest and prison.
According to the Hizmet-linked turkeypurge.com website set up by concerned journalists, by early March 2018, 133,000 people had been detained in Turkey of which 65,000 were subsequently arrested. 319 of these were journalists or media workers of which, according to the Pen International and the Stockholm Centre for Freedom, 170 journalists were languishing in prison, mainly in pre-trial detention. So my unexpected lunch companion had good reason to leave.
Some 3,000 schools, and universities have been shut down and 5,800 academics/teachers sacked. The organisation was set up by Fethullah Gulen in the late 1970s. Together with religious tolerance Hizmet prioritised educational attainment. Not surprisingly, its members achieved considerable upward mobility into the professions – otherwise described by opponents as infiltrating the judiciary, police, banking, construction industry, civil service and media. That would make the UK’s public schools the leading entryist organisations in the country.
By the turn of the millennium Hizmet shared with Erdogan’s nascent AKP (Freedom and Justice Party) the hope of disempowering the military and secular establishment that had ruled Turkey since Ataturk. It was not unreasonable for them to wish to see their religious values reflected in the life and governance of a predominantly Muslim country. But, while wanting to avoid the pitfalls of a formal political profile, Hizmet formed what amounted to a loose tactical alliance with Erdogan based on a shared vision, or at the very least wished the AKP well.
Implementing an almost Gramscian formula, Hizmet set about changing the conversation about Islam in civil society while Erdogan manoeuvred no less successfully at the state political level. It was a winning combination. But it couldn’t last. Fethullah Gulen openly began disagreeing with Erdogan’s policies, most notably on his dealing with the Kurds. Prior to the 2011 elections Erdogan was weeding out Hizmet from AKP positions, and those in government were put under pressure. With rival secular elites defeated, in November 2013 Erdogan set about dismantling Hizmet’s key recruitment infrastructure: starting with their preparatory schools. This was no Mussolini-Pius XII clash over schools and scouts partially patched up for mutual advantage to preserve a Concordat and Lateran Treaty. Hizmet members hit back with highly damaging corruption charges against the President and his family. Henceforth Hizmet and its educational establishments became the new enemy and experienced mounting attrition.
The military and Turkey’s secular protagonists historically have been virulently anti-religious. So the movement was poorly represented in the traditionally secular armed forces. Nonetheless some Hizmet members in the army and air-force, after four years of watching their movement take punishment from government, joined in what now seems to have been a secular-led coup attempt. The President survived. Presidential palace, Parliament and Police headquarters were attacked by the air-force. Some 300 died. This gave Erdogan ample pretext for accelerating his passage towards a dangerous cult of personality, military sallies, autocratic rule and human rights violations, worthy of the early stages of something worse.
Turkey stands today at the confluence of not only West and East, Russia and NATO, but of several of the big and complex questions confronting liberal democracy: the growth of autocratic regimes with electoral vestiges of democracy and widespread populist support, the future of Islam, the treatment of minorities, and the future of the Middle East. It could go in any direction. Do we really, under Boris Johnson, have an elaborated foreign policy to navigate a way through these questions, or indeed a Foreign Minister competent enough to formulate and implement one? Yet Turkey stands as the bellwether of stability in post-Cold War geopolitics. This worrying reality is not reflected in our mass media or distribution of foreign correspondents.
As I tried on parting to find something positive to say to my journalist friend, I thought sadly about his predicament and that of the Turkey he and I loved and once enjoyed. What a terrible, tragic waste.