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
We think of sanctions as an alternative to war. They are also a projection of power. States, corporations, and recently, individual citizens, are punished economically. The aim is to stop or curtail actions which are inimical to the interests or values of the sanctioning State or contrary to international law, or to both. In the long term the economic impact of sanctions may erode a belligerent State’s will or ability to wage war. So far so theoretical.
But after reading Agathe Demarais’ recent Backfire: How Sanctions Reshape the World Against US Interests, Columbia University Press, 2022, you might be surprised how little practice fits theory. Demarais recounts how sanctions have evolved since the 1950s including the variety of things that can go wrong and backfire on those who have imposed them.
President Eisenhower, with the creation in 1950 of the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), instituted the use of trade sanctions as a way of achieving foreign policy goals. The first target was North Korea, a legacy of the Korean war. North Korea’s economic links with the USA were tenuous. The approach had to be multilateral: a UN embargo on oil imports and coal exports.
After the revolution in 1959, Cuba was always a particularly American concern. 73% of Cuba’s exports went to the USA and 70% of its imports came from the USA. Yet Eisenhower’s embargo imposed in 1960 failed to achieve its goals. Despite an estimated loss over $130 billion in income, Castro died with his regime intact and was succeeded by his brother Raul. The Kim dynasty in North Korea survives. There are always ways of getting round trade embargoes.
Fast forward thirty years to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the lessons of Cuba and North Korea hadn’t been learned or were just ignored. Only a few days after Operation Desert Shield destroyed Saddam Hussein’s retreating army, comprehensive international sanctions were imposed on Iraq. They lasted from 1990 to1995 cutting off medical supplies and food imports. Estimates of Iraqi children dying of preventable diseases and malnutrition vary from tens to hundreds of thousands. An ‘oil for goods’ provision in 1995 permitted some humanitarian aid to enter the country. But Saddam Hussein was hanged in December 2006 as consequence of military defeat.
Inflation is the most immediate result of even partial enforced economic isolation. It powerfully affects the poorest. According to Demarais writing in Backfire, American OFAC sanctions on Venezuela in 2018 caused the price of a roll of toilet paper to jump “to nearly 3 million bolivars, requiring a three-kilogram stack of 1,000 bank notes to pay for it”. Mass emigration followed. The regime survived.
American companies shared a lot of the resultant pain from US sanctions while non-American companies were able to profit by filling the gaps created. Congress dealt with growing complaints from US business by legislation subjecting foreign companies to the same penalties for trading with Cuba. In a second 1996 Act, sanctions on Iran’s - and Libya’s - energy sectors were extended to include and enforce compliance by all international companies. This was the beginning of highly contentious ‘extraterritorial’ ‘secondary’ sanctions. The European Union, coerced by the Americans, had enough clout to stand up to them. It warned that they would initiate a dispute procedure in the WTO (World Trade Organisation) which most believed the EU would win. Clinton backed down.
By the turn of the century, OFAC, without abandoning the blunt weapon of embargoes, was moving on to sectoral sanctions, focusing on technology and finance, applied now to Iran. The US was playing to its strengths, in particular the dominant role of the dollar in global financial services. Companies and individuals in pariah countries were put on a Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list barring them from doing business - in dollars - with the USA. Information on banks’ customers and networks became critical. In 2012, under strong US pressure, SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications), the over 11,000 strong cooperative network for international payments with its – today's - $5 trillion worth of transactions daily, 40% conducted in dollars, cut off Iranian banks.
But come the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014 and China’s increasingly autocratic behaviour both nationally and internationally, the USA - and European Union – squared up to two significantly more formidable targets. A second phase in the sanctions saga opened up. The Peoples’ Bank of China immediately began developing its own financial service, CIPS (Cross-Border Interbank Payment System), for international payments in renminbi. After its launch in 2015, CIPS attracted not only HSBC and Standard Chartered but also Deutsche Bank, Citi and BNP Paribas, the French investment banking group. In January 2023 Russia and Iran joined up to create their own payments network after SWIFT excluded some important Russian banks. The sanctioned targets were hitting back.
Agathe Demarais indicates in Backfire that the growth of cryptocurrencies is providing sanctions-proof banking. China issued its own state-backed cryptocurrency in 2019, the digital renminbi. Today some 300 million Chinese citizens use mobile phones for such accounts, thus creating another doorway to comprehensive government surveillance. The Communist Party leadership now appear to be aiming at total control of the country’s financial system by displacing its two big tech firms, Alibaba and WePay, in the field of digital payments.
So the not-so hidden logic of sanctions is the ‘decoupling’ of the world’s major economies, the fracturing of the global economy into competing economic blocs. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its extensive investment in trade and infrastructure in Africa, its role in the global South’s association of big economies, BRICS, leaves little doubt which bloc will eventually incorporate the most States. One brake on such ‘decoupling’ is the crucial role of semiconductors and microchips in all economies and in military-industrial complexes. Put crudely ‘it’s the supply-chain stupid’.
A key feature of decoupling is a policy of beggar - your- economic- neighbour (and rival) in microchip production. China controls 80% of the production/refining of the world’s vital rare earths used in semi-conductors present in a vast array of modern appliances. A F-35 fighter requires 417 kilos of these metals. But the USA predominates in the equipment, software and design of semi-conductors. A handful of such high-tech firms are collectively worth over $1 trillion. The bulk of mass microchip manufacture takes place in Taiwan and South Korea. In 2020 Chinese legislation restricted the export of 17 rare earths and Trump banned all microchip sales to Huawei and other Chinese companies. Skirmishes in a future economic war?
Geopolitics are changing. A multipolar world is emerging. Sanctions have helped shape the present contours of international economic relations. Yet on the whole sanctions don’t achieve their goals, often harming those they are not aimed at and bringing about unintended consequences. States with a powerful coercive apparatus and a cohesive military show considerable durability. Even weak States like Cuba and Venezuela resist successfully. The most that can be said is that war, the alternative to sanctions, is far worse.
Backfire is a fascinating must-read for those who contribute to making foreign policy, for those who suffer from it, and for us baffled onlookers who fear for our grandchildren’s future.
See TheArticle 18/04/2023
Finland has just joined NATO. Norway was a founding member in 1949. Sweden wishes to join but to date is blocked by Turkey.
A few days ago, the Russian Ambassador in Stockholm, Ukrainian-born Viktor Tatarinsev, commented “the Swedes will undoubtedly be sent to their deaths in the interests of others” adding that joining NATO would make Swedes “a legitimate target of Russia’s retaliatory measures”. Putin had similarly warned that Finland stood to suffer “serious military and political consequences".
You have to admire these three Nordics close neighbors of Russia, Finland with 800 miles of shared border. Their total population today is a mere 21.5 million. They are threatened by a Russian Federation of 146 million. St. Petersburg is about the same distance from the Finnish border as Aberystwyth from London. Defiance like this takes courage. Not the first instance of courageous Nordic foreign policy.
In the 1980s while working on human rights and international development, I grew to respect Sweden and her fellow Nordics as international actors. My first encounter was with Birgitta Berggren, the southern Africa desk officer of SIDA (the Swedish International Development Agency) - at the time equivalent to Britain’s now defunct DfID. She was seeking assistance in funding the ‘home front’ of the African National Congress (ANC). A British passport meant I did not require a visa involving special checks to enter South Africa and my Church contacts would help.
The 1980s saw an intensification of the Cold War and the final crisis of apartheid. In 1982 Nelson Mandela was moved off Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison where the South African National Intelligence Agency could sound him out more privately – most likely in the hope of driving a wedge between him and the ANC leadership. They failed. In November 1985 while Mandela was in hospital for a prostate operation, ‘Kobie’ Coetzee, the Minister of Justice opened the first government talks.
Under pressure from Pretoria, the Frontline States with their many South African exiles had reached bilateral agreements with the apartheid regime that restricted or closed the bases of the ANC’s military wing. But in 1983 within South Africa, the UDF (United Democratic Front) had been launched. Made up of some 400 civic, trades union, student, women’s and church-linked organisations, despite repression, it gained ground becoming the key pillar of the ANC’s ‘home front’.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Olof Palme until his assassination in February 1986, support for national liberation movements in Southern Africa was a key element of the Swedish Social Democrats’ foreign policy. By the mid- 1980s, in contrast to the US and UK who were doing their best to make sure the ANC failed, Sweden was treating the ANC as a government in waiting. What mattered for most western governments was that the ANC was ‘Soviet-backed’. ‘Swedish-backed’ or ‘Nordic backed’ would have been just as accurate a description, especially when referring to non-military support. *
Sweden had begun supporting the ANC’s “home-front” in the mid-1970s and in the 1980s sought to increase their funding via the trade unions and the Churches within South Africa. In the words of SIDA’s Lars-Olof Edström in Lusaka, Zambia in 1980: “ANC is no longer an exile organisation [but] very active inside South Africa. Support to the internal work must accordingly constitute an essential part of the Swedish assistance”. The Nordics’ intervention was both timely and strategically important. Between 1969-1995 SIDA’s regular assistance to the southern African liberation movements, using figures from Tor Sellström’s Sweden & National Liberation in Southern Africa Vol II, adjusted for inflation and converted to sterling, amounted to £100s of millions in current values. And this does not include money for cultural activities, information, research work and emergencies. Half of it went to the ANC.
Many in the Churches inside South Africa were ready to help deliver financial assistance to the ANC. An influential group of radical Christian leaders supporting and consulting the ANC determined the spending priorities. They were led by Rev. Dr. Beyers Naudé, a prominent Dutch Reformed Church minister who had resigned from his ministry in order to oppose apartheid. He endured banning (severe restrictions on movement and political activity) from 1977 to 1985. Naudé, with influence in the Netherlands and internationally, then became secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and a key point of reference for the Swedish legation in Pretoria. Alongside him were the theologian Father Albert Nolan OP, who when elected master-general of the Dominicans had asked to be allowed to continue his work in South Africa, and Rev. Frank Chikane, who succeeded Naudé as secretary-general of the SACC. He survived an attempted poisoning ordered by the Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok.
With the blessing of this Christian group Swedish money financed - non-military - needs of ANC activists as well as supporting organisations like COSAS (Congress of South African Students), the ANC’s youth movement. A Catholic network led by the Fr. Albert Nolan worked with the internal organisations of the ANC. The Grail, a lay Catholic women’s association, sheltered activists on the run, handing out Swedish money for travel and other needs. One need was a de-bugging device sourced in Croydon and delivered to the UDF. Thabo Mbeki, a future President of South Africa, speaking in a 1995 interview, said that the special role of Sweden “was to say that the people have got the right and the duty to rebel against oppression” and “as part of the recognition of that right...you support the people who are engaged in the struggle”. “You do not define what they should be”. Or become, he might have added. Sweden through the Churches and trade unions made a significant contribution to internal grassroots mobilisation.
By the mid-1980s Church relations with the ANC extended from grassroots to the highest level. Thabo Mbeki travelled often to London so I was able to consult him in a variety of venues, mainly pubs. Meetings between the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) and the ANC began with a discussion between Archbishop Denis Hurley, President of the SACBC and Oliver Tambo, the exiled ANC President, at the Great Western Hotel, Paddington, London - hugs, beer and sandwiches. This meeting was followed by a more formal one in Harare between the South African bishops in the SACBC and Mbeki.
The Churches also established wider more complex links. Until the mid-1980s the European Economic Community (EEC), the USA and UK resisted pressure to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. The EEC initiated, and was ready to fund, a face-saving ‘special programme for the victims of apartheid’ within South Africa. To this end they asked two representatives, one Protestant and one Catholic to a consultative meeting in Brussels. Rev. Beyers Naudé represented the Protestants. At the time, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, secretary- general of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC), was in prison and suffering torture. I was surprised to be asked to go instead of him.
The array of EU officials that greeted us was even more surprised to hear from Dr. Naudé of the restrictive conditions which the Churches demanded before they would accept and distribute EEC funding. No money should go to Inkatha, an ethnic Zulu political movement shaping up for a civil war with the non-racial nationalist ANC. Germany, USA, and UK greeted Inkatha as an opponent to the ANC despite the risk of serious violence. Civil war came close during government negotiations between 1990 and 1994, with massacres involving Zulu militia trained and armed by the South African Defense Force.
During the 1994 elections, the Nordics through the Churches continued their efforts to contain violence. Highly effective election monitoring, notably by international World Council of Churches’ teams, played a significant part in keeping campaigning and voting peaceful. I accompanied former President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, monitoring in KwaZulu Natal, the main area of Inkatha support. Tensions were palpable but a ceasefire ordered by the Inkatha leader, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, held. The ANC won 62% of the national vote, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 10%.
In the bipolar world of the 1970s and 1980s, Swedish governments of different persuasions and the Nordics, had the courage to break the Cold War mould by making difficult ethical and political choices. In their support for the liberation movements, they had in the main the enthusiastic agreement of civil society. Human rights and development agencies, diplomats, anti-apartheid and women’s groups, trades unions and Churches interacted and worked together. The result and success of the 1994 elections was a vindication of their judgement.
The closing lines of Tor Sellström’s magisterial study, Sweden & National Liberation in Southern Africa point to an anomaly worth pondering: “the great Swedish support to the South African struggle against apartheid has not become a fact worth mentioning in the textbooks... It would have been possible to point out the importance that also a small country like Sweden can have. But the textbooks are silent”.
*See William M. Minter (Africa Today 1996),